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Category Archives: AP English

5 Lists of Books and More Space for Talk

I am a collector. I collect bookmarks I don’t use and tweets with headlines I think I’ll read later. I collect cute little pots I think I’ll eventually make home to plants, and notebooks I’m afraid to mess up with a pen (from my pen collection, of course.)

I also collect lists. Doesn’t everyone?

I collect lists of books thinking this will keep me from buying more books. Sometimes it works. Not often.

We’ve shared several lists of books on this blog:  Coach Moore’s list of books he read this summer, Shana’s Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With, Amy E’s Refresh the Recommended Reading List, and Lisa’s Going Broke List just to name a few.

I like reading lists about books. This helps me stay current on what my students might find interesting or useful. Often, I find titles that help me find the just right book for that one students who confuses “reading is boring” with “I don’t read well,” or “I don’t know what I like to read.”

With one heartbreaking event after another in our country lately, I keep thinking about the importance of reading to help our young people grow into compassionate citizens who more easily understand their world. Did you see the results of yet another study? Reading makes you feel more empathy for others, researchers discover.

Of course, we don’t need another study to tell us this. Many of us see it in our students.

I see it in my students. My students who enjoy reading also enjoy talking about their

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My students chose from nine different books for their book clubs. Once they chose, we had five different book clubs happening in one class. At the end of our second discussion day, I had students combine groups and talk with one another about the major themes, make connections, and share a bit about their author’s style.

reading. They relate to one another more naturally as they talk about their books, the characters, the connections. They welcome conversations that allow them to express their opinions, likes and dislikes. They learn much more than reading skills through these conversations.

My AP Language students recently finished their first book club books. I left them largely without a structured approach to talking about their reading. My only challenge on their first discussion day was to stay on topic:  keep the conversation about the book for 30 minutes. They did. I wandered the room, listening in as I checked the reading progress of each student.

On the final discussion day (three total), I reviewed question types and used ideas from Margaret Lopez’ guest post Saying Something, Not Just Anything, and asked students to write two of each question types:  factual, inductive, analytical prior to their book club discussions. This led to even richer conversations around their reading.

I remember reading a long while ago about how conversations about poetry could invite opportunities for solving big problems. I don’t know if this is the article I read, but the poet interviewed in this article asserts it, too:

I think we know the world needs changing. Things are going awry left and right. I firmly believe that in our very practical, technological, and scientific age, the values of all the arts, but of poetry in particular, are necessary for moving the world forward. I’m talking about things like compassion, empathy, permeability, interconnection, and the recognition of how important it is to allow uncertainty in our lives.

. . .Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. They’re about complexity, nuance, subtlety. Poems also create larger fields of possibilities. The imagination is limitless, so even when a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing poems give you is there is always a changeability, a malleability, of inner circumstance. That’s the beginning of freedom.

When we invite our students to read, and then open spaces for them to talk about their

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This group had hearty discussions around Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It’s Western Days. They don’t always wear hats and plaid and boots, even in Texas.

reading, we provide the same opportunities that discussions around poetry do. Maybe not on the micro scale of ambiguity and nuance, but most certainly on the macro scale of possibilities. Our students are social creatures, and we must give them spaces to talk.

So I collect lists of books I think my students may like to read, with the hope of engaging them in conversations — with me and with one another — around books. (A couple of years ago, Shana and I had students create book lists as part of their midterm.)

Here’s five of the book lists I’ve read lately. Maybe you will find them useful as you curate your classroom libraries and work to find the right books for the right students, so they can have the conversations that help them grow in the empathy and understanding we need in our future leaders, right or left.

6 YA Books that are Great for Adults

50 Books from the Past 50 Years Everyone Should Read at Least Once

The Bluford Series — Audiobooks

20 Books for Older Teen Reluctant Readers

43 Books to Read Before They are Movies

Oh, and if you haven’t read Lisa’s 10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now post in a while, now, that’s an awesome list!!

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, watch movies with her husband, and tickle her five grandchildren. She’s in the market for a lake house and likes to shop thrift stores for books and bargain furniture. Someday she’ll be disciplined enough to write a book about teaching. For now, she teaches senior English and AP Lang and Comp at her favorite high school in North TX. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass, and, please, go ahead and follow this blog.

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Blackout Poetry with a Twist

Early in the school year, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to gather diagnostic data on my students, without uttering the words diagnostic, data, quiz, baseline, or any other term that reduces my students to plot points on a spreadsheet or numbers in the gradebook.

We know the power of conferring in learning about our students in countless ways, but what to do when, say as an AP teacher, we need to know students’ understanding of analysis terms or their ability to apply those terms in order to really dig into authentic analysis through study of mentor texts?

The idea of a vocabulary quiz makes me shutter. Conferring long enough with each student to get a good understanding of his/her knowledge of syntax, imagery, figurative language, etc. would take weeks. Submitting annotations on our first go-around seems cruel to both students and to me.

So this year, my colleague Sarah and I decided to try something different. We wanted an understanding of how students would go about identifying the purpose of a piece and img_6137provide appropriate text evidence of the basic terminology of analysis: syntax, imagery, diction, figurative language, and detail. We wanted students to use their left and their right brains. We wanted to students to work together to solve a problem.

Enter, the blackout poem.

Traditionally, black out poetry makes meaning out of the words provided by a single page of text. Whether it be from a book, article, essay, etc., a poem is created from the words that live on the page by blacking out all other words and leaving just the ones that create meaning for your given purpose. Additional images are sometimes included.

We decided to turn this upside down a bit. Students would create their page of text from the text evidence they pulled from their reading (In this case, their choice of Mary Roach books from our summer homework assignment) and a poem to illustrate their claim of purpose from that reading.

And this, is some of what we got:

Below, are the steps we took in guiding students through this unique assignment. It could work for jut about any reading, and I would love to try it when students have read a variety of perspectives on a given topic.

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  1. Students read their choice of Mary Roach books over the summer and kept track of instances where they felt she purposefully utilized DIDLS (Detail, Imagery, etc.).
  2. We then partnered up or formed groups of three to discuss what we found and what we thought it meant. We were working toward specific purpose claims for each text.
  3. Students shared examples of the various instances of craft from Roach’s texts and as they did so, they typed those quotes onto a shared Google document. Their final task with that original quote document was to decide on a claim of purpose for the text(s) they read.
  4. Once finished, students printed that document of quotes so I could take a look. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for review that’s needed with specific elements of analysis.
  5. The kids then eliminated all of the formatting for their quote document, so they were left with a page full of quotes from their texts. Essentially, they created the page of text for their blackout poem, instead of using an existing one from the book.
  6. We then talked about how to communicate their claims of purpose poetically. Simply finding the words from their purpose was not going to be poetic, it was going to sound like a thesis. We brainstormed ways to convey the purpose through related ideas and involve more imagery, figurative language, etc. in our own work.
  7. Finally, we put the poems under the document camera and each group explained their claim for Roach’s purpose in the text, how it influenced their poem, and read their work to us. We snapped at the end of each reading.

I love that this work got students talking about a text, using text evidence, attacking an assignment with both sides of their brains, and enthusiastically supporting one another’s work by sharing with the class. Their creations went well beyond finding and explaining examples, to creation. Poetry from nonfiction for the win.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite insight from Mary Roach (courtesy of the book Gulp) is that our mouths fill up with saliva before we vomit in order to protect our teeth. We have so much acid in our stomachs that our teeth would be irreparably damaged when we puke, if our saliva didn’t protect them. Science. Incredible. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

 

 

 

 

Shifting Control to Invite More Learning

569059I admit to liking control. I won’t go far as to say I’m a control freak, but I am freakishly close. As I age I realize I like more and more things in neat little rows, even my To-Do lists must be lined up perfectly, so I can make tiny check marks with my Precision pen.

I am ridiculous.

The hardest part of teaching for me is letting go. It’s also been the best thing for my teaching.

To be an effective workshop teacher, we step aside so our students can step in. They want to know their opinions, ideas, and choices matter. They’re hungry for it. We’ve written a lot about choice reading on this blog, and I know many of us advocate for self-selected independent reading, protecting sacred reading time like an O line protecting our quarterbacks.

I wonder what other choices we offer our students. How else do we invite them to own their learning?

Recently, I read this post “The Inspiration in Front of Your Eyes” by George Couros. He begins:

Often when working with educators, I try to give relevant examples of ideas that can be implemented into learning but get very specific to either a class or grade level.  My focus is not adding something to the plate of an educator but replacing something they currently do with something new and better than what they may have been doing before.  For example, instead of a teacher spending hours searching a video to explain a concept in math, or even creating it themselves, why not have the students find the concept and say why it is powerful, or having the students create some form of multimedia to explain the concept themselves? The flip is putting the learning into the student’s hands, which can lessen the work for the educator.

Deeper learning for the student, less work for the teacher.  Sounds good to me!

Couros goes on to explain the importance of being observant and connecting ideas we find in the world, and reshaping them to facilitate deeper learning 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 students.

Then before school a week ago Monday, I saw Kristen Ziemke‘s Padlet, Take a Knee. And I got another spark to shift my instruction.

I’d never used Padlet before, so while my students shuffled in to first period, I quickly made an account and created a board. I put one thing on it:  Kwame Alexander’s poem, Take a Knee, which I knew was the perfect quickwrite for the day after so many NFL players knelt in protest.

After we wrote and shared and talked in small groups and as a class about the issue. One student said, “I just don’t know enough about it to know what I believe.”

The perfect intro!

I suggested we make a text set that could help us understand the why’s and who’s and what’s of this hotbed of a topic, and I issued the challenge:  As a class of individuals with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds, we’d search for articles that would address all sides. We’d use Padlet as our storage space. Then we’d use the text set we build together for our learning in class.

With their phones and iPads, students went to work, and in the 10 minutes I gave them in class, they talked. Students talked about where to find information that “wasn’t biased,” “would tell them the truth,” “will help me want to know more.”

I leaned in to these conversations, teaching terms, suggesting sites, encouraging objectivity — and why it is important for our understanding of human needs and desires.

Our Padlet What’s the Argument is not complete. We haven’t had a chance to return to it yet, but we will. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to ask better questions in preparation for whole class discussions. Maybe we’ll use it as we learn to synthesize information from a variety of sources. Maybe we’ll use it to spark ideas for the arguments we’ll post on our blogs. It doesn’t matter.

When we return to our Padlet, or even create another one that coincides with whatever peace-cannot-be-kept-by-force-it-can-only-be-achieved-by-understandinghotbed topic fires up the nation (sadly, there are so many), my students will know I value their input. They’ll know that helping them make sense of our world is as important to me as helping them love books and become good writers.

And maybe they’ll remember to look at all sides of the issues, to see into the hearts and minds of those we may disagree with so we can find a space for conversations.

If my giving up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.

What ideas to do have to flip the learning into students’ hands, let go of control, and invite deeper learning? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a neat freak in her classroom but not her bedroom closet. She loves sharing books with student readers and reading students’ writing. She is the mother of six, grandmother to five, and wife to one very patient man. She teaches senior English and AP English Language at a huge and lovely senior high school in North Texas. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

#TwitterTeacher

I’m late to the party. This I know. But my enthusiasm for this soirée is genuine, and it fueled some of my first day success.

In an effort to build community as quickly as possible this school year, and to get to know our students a bit over the summer, my colleague Sarah Sterbin and I decided to add some technological play to our AP Language summer homework. Using the hashtag #fhslanglife, students were asked to share their reading life twitter4throughout the summer.

They could snap photos of their trips to the bookstore, their feet in the sand and a book in their hands, and their smiling faces reading the summer away.

They could quip about quotes from required and choice reading, make suggestions to peers on what to read next, comment on the insights of others, follow my reading adventures, and the list goes on.

As often happens with open ended assignments, we got a wide variety of participation. Tweets ebbed and flowed throughout the summer, but each time a student posted, I made it a priority to comment, retweet, like, and/or tag an author to promote connections across the world of reading. When Ishmael Beah, Allen Eskens, and Matthew Desmond interact with your students over the summer, I call that a solid win for starting to build readers and a community with enthusiasm around reading.

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On the very first day of school, and in the few days that followed, as we quickly collected summer work, set down to work with a quick writes, set up writers’ notebooks, organized editorial speeches for our first speaking opportunity, and took in the surroundings of our room, I asked students to use our hashtag to share their excitement about the work ahead. I love what they chose to share.

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Tweeting is a quick and easy way to build community. I sometimes display current tweets our daily PowerPoint/Syllabus to keep the movement afoot, and I love to hear students’ reactions as they come in the room to see their humor, insights, and recommendations on the big screen.

Twitter

How do you use social media to promote reading and writing lives? Please leave your brilliant ideas in the comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest tweet suggests that she thinks about reading 24/7. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Inviting Controversy, and Often

“If you could, keep any type of content that has to do with race and gender possibly politics out of any classroom discussion, videos, papersor anything of that sort. Its very controversial. . . It’s very debatable , especially when we have different values/ethics on subjects .”

If you can look past all the errors, perhaps you can see why this student’s message cut into my brain a bit. I invite open dialogue, so that a student felt comfortable emailing me with such a request took some of the edge off. Some. Of. It.

But really?!

Once my heart slowed a bit, and I got over the audacity of this child (Can you even imagine telling a teacher what is and is not appropriate to discuss in class?) I realized one important thing:  I am right on target.

Hard TopicsIf we do not discuss the hard topics in our classes, where will students ever learn to discuss the hard topics? Sure, we can hope they debate social, economic, and political issues in their homes, but we know many families do not have meals together much less conversations. And it’s the conversations, varied and diverse, that can help us view the world in a different light — sometimes a cleaner, clearer, more empathetic and compassionate light. I think we need more of this light.

Here’s part of my response:

I appreciate your concern about controversial topics; however, English is a humanities class, and as such, we should learn about the humanities. That means all the messy topics that make us human. We should invite controversial topics into the classroom. The classroom becomes a microcosm of the world outside of school. If we cannot learn to discuss and debate in polite conversation here, how can we expect to ever discuss and debate politely as adults?

I see it as my job to be sure we think and feel and share as individuals with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and interests. I will continue to use texts, including poems, that give us voice to our lives and thinking.

Side note:  The poems in question were ones I shared as quickwrite prompts to spark thinking for the college application essays students would soon begin writing, “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis and “Facts about Myself” by Tucker Bryant. I still don’t see the controversy.

Yesterday I saw a post on a Facebook group I follow where ELA teachers often ask for help. One person posted:  “One of my students challenged me today to include more literature that is relevant to what they are seeing in the world right now. . . What should I include?”

I refrained from responding:  EVERYTHING in my Twitter feed.

We all know the importance of helping students see the relevance in the texts we study, and I don’t know the context of that student’s request, but I wonder if sometimes students believe relevance means:  reflects what I already believe and feel, instead of: often challenges what I already think and feel.

Maybe we need to do a better job of explaining why we must challenge our own beliefs, get out of our echo chambers, and at least acknowledge the opinions of those who differ from our own.

Maybe I failed my student because I didn’t explain enough at the get go.

Today he got his schedule changed. Right after I found this infographic, an argument for the humanities.

We’ll study it in class real soon — after we discuss Jared Kushner’s Harvard Admissions Essay and finish writing our own. (See what I did there?) Then we’ll brainstorm the most debatable topics we can think of — DACA, Black Lives Matter, Confederate monuments, everything A Handmaid’s Tale, gender rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and more rights– and engage in the critical, and oh, so vital discussions that help us understand what it means to be human.

How do you invite these critical conversations into your classroom instruction? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen is a trouble-maker. Tell her not to do something, and she will do it — especially if it leads to expanding the minds and improving the learning experiences of today’s youth. She teaches Humanities/AP Language and Composition and senior English at a large, diverse, and truly wonderful high school in North TX. Her hobbies are searching for controversial topics that spark debate, reading and sharing banned books, and challenging the status quo. And she loves the readers of this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk; and please join the conversation over on Facebook at Three Teachers Talk.

3 Ideas for Better Book Talks

I should have written this post yesterday. Yesterday was 9/11, and I always try to incorporate some lesson about the events, emotions, and effects of that day into whatever our focus is in class. It’s important we always remember.

My students are juniors and seniors. 9/11 is history to them, and few of my students like to read historical fiction. They choose YA off of my “Teen Angst,” “There Might Be Kissing,” and “You Just Can’t Get Over It” shelves most often. (I suppose most of the books I book talked today fit in that last category though. I’ll be moving a few later.)

Without really meaning to, I shared three books with students on Monday in three different ways. Thus, the idea for this post on engaging students in reading by mixing up our book talks.

  1. Read a poignant, exciting, or particularly intriguing passage from a book.

Over the weekend, I read The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner. I found this a touching story about love and loss and resilience — all topics my students can relate to. What does it mean to be responsible? How do we fight our fears and struggle through the tragedies that terrify us?

In my book talk, I spoke about the characters in the book:  a young man trying to prove his worth to his dad, and a young woman who we learn is in conflict with hers — both struggling with the realities in NYC on the tragic Tuesday of 9/11.

I read the first few paragraphs aloud:

“I move with the crowd, away from downtown Manhattan.

We travel swiftly but don’t run, panicked but steady, a molten lava flow of bodies across the bridge.

A crash of thunder erupts–another explosion?–and the flow startles and quickens. Someone near me starts to cry, a choked, gasping sound, soon muted by a new wail of sirens rising at my back.

I stop and turn, stare frozen. People rush past me:  faces twisted with shock and fear, mouths held open in O’s, others only eyes where their noses and mouths have been covered with knotted sleeves against the toxic, burning reek.

I search fro Kristen or Kelly, or Mr. Bell, but I lost them all as soon as we got to the bridge.

I don’t see anyone I know from school.

I don’t see anyone I know.

I press my sleeve to my nose– Don’t think, Kyle, just move!–but feel stuck gaping at the place where the city has vanished beyond the thick brown wall of smoke.

Two planes have hit, one building is down, and my dad is in their somewhere.”

There’s a lesson in imagery in there I may return to sometime. We are writing narratives right now, so I bookmarked this for later. For now, it’s a good teaser and an effective book talk.

2. Show a movie trailer — but play up on how the book is always better.

My students love videos. They admit to spending their entire lives on YouTube, so any chance I get to show a video clip I take.

If you’ve read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, maybe you feel like I do about the movie:  I loved it, but the book just gives us so much more detail, description, characters, and craft to love. Oh, how I love the craft in this book by Jonathan Safron Foer.

For my book talk, I first flipped through the book, showing student how Foer plays with white space, page markings, and photo essays — all which play into how he develops the plot and constructs meaning. I talked about the parallel plot line and how the movie makers diminish, change even, the important second storyline. I explained how this book taught me more about author’s craft than anything I’ve ever read. Then, I showed the movie trailer.

(Book trailers work as effective book talks, too. You’ll find a bunch here and here and here. We even have a few ideas about book trailers in our archives on this blog.)

  1. Use a passage as a quick write prompt or as a craft study. 

Have you read The Red Bandanna: A Life, a Choice, A Legacy by Tom Rinaldi? Just a few pages in, and your heart will swell.

As I read the books I know I will share with my readers, I mark passages that make me think and feel. Important moves for any reader. I model these moves as I share books and writing ideas with my students. This passage from The Red Bandanna tears me to shreds every time.

The Red Bandana

In my senior English classes, I talked about the heroics of Welles Crowther, the main character in the book, and then students wrote in response to the questions:  What do you carry, what truth could it possibly contain? What meaning could it hold?

In my AP Language class, we talked in our groups about the word choice, the interesting syntax, the tone, and then students wrote their answers to those questions, trying to imitate the writer’s rhythm and descriptive language.

In all my classes, we talked about 9/11, our thoughts, our feelings, and why they matter to the lives we live now. We made connections to texts and to one another as we shared our thinking and our writing. That to me is an added bonus of an effective book talk.

I know my students will read more the more I talk about books. I am the salesperson, and they are the often skeptical customer. I’ve learned that mixing up how I talk about books matters.

And getting students interested in reading pretty much anything these days matters most of all.

Do you have ideas on mixing up our book talks? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen loves to read, watch movies with her husband, and tickle her five grandchildren. She’s in the market for a lake house and likes to shop thrift stores for books and bargain furniture. Someday she’ll be disciplined enough to write a book about teaching. For now, she teaches senior English and AP Lang and Comp at her favorite high school in North TX. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass, and please, go ahead and follow this blog.

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.

TeacherAuthorBio

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

user_guide

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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