Tag Archives: community

Guest Post: Find the Light in the Darkness: My English Classroom Post-Harvey

I’m a teacher. My job is to teach children-teenagers-everything English. It is what I was Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)called to do 10 years ago. So as I sit here in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I can’t help but think about what I will teach my students when we return to school and our new normal.

What can my English classroom offer a student who has possibly lost everything in a horrific storm? A student who is staying in a shelter wearing donated clothes because all he could carry out of his flooded house was a duffle bag and the clothes on his back? A student who has braved the tragic conditions to save others from their nightmare of rising water and tangible fear? A student who didn’t flood, but is watching his friends and family suffer the stress of life-altering devastation?

Staying indoors for 5 days straight offers ample time for reflection, so the answers to my questions have come. My classroom has not changed–it is quite possibly the one stable place that Harvey couldn’t touch. Not that he didn’t try. My classroom will remain a safe place for my students to write through the pain they feel. It will be a microcosm for the amazing unity we are seeing in our area. It will allow my students to talk to their peers about shared emotions. It will give students the opportunity to write to process, to share, and to unite. It will be a place where tears are shed and spirits are renewed. It will be a place where students can learn about compassion and what it means to be a community through real-world experiences right in our backyard.

I am not sure I could think of a stronger classroom than that.

And I will lead the way as I always do–through modeling with my own Harvey experience. And when I do, it will probably look something like this:

As I sit here writing these words, I am not even sure what emotions I’m feeling anymore. Fear. Shock. Disbelief. Fear. Sadness. Guilt. Fear.

I don’t think I will ever forget this storm. The fear I felt Saturday night as the rain and wind ripped through my neighborhood is indescribable. At one point, I just wrapped my arms around my sleeping three-year-old daughter and hugged her close to my chest- not to comfort her, but to comfort me. I needed stability because I had absolutely no control over what was ensuing outside my window.

Texts poured in throughout the night- friends and family checking in and reporting the surreal nightmare unfolding before our eyes. Water ferociously crawled up my yard, and I watched with panic. My Facebook newsfeed couldn’t refresh fast enough as I saw new friends reporting flooding with every second’s update. I finally fell asleep at about 4:00 in the morning as the howling wind died down to a soft roar, and the water stayed a few feet away from my house.

What I woke to on Saturday morning is what still sits in my gut. The national news channels- national, people- like CNN and The Weather Channel- were in a place so near and dear to my heart. The place where I went to elementary school. The place where I slept over at friends’ houses. The place my husband and siblings went to high school. The place that taught me what it means to be a teacher. The place I spent the first six years of my teaching career. The place where SO many of my friends and beloved former students live. The place that had been hit like a freight train by this natural disaster called Harvey.

There is something very eerie about seeing familiar places and faces on the national news.

I saw images of my friends on rooftops being rescued by more of my friends selflessly putting themselves at risk to save others. I saw even more of my friends and their babies, some only days old, riding in boats to their safety and riding away from the lives they had known before the storm. I commented on all that I could, but with each comment, my words felt less and less valuable. How many times can you say, “I’m so sorry. I’m praying for you.” before it means nothing?

I received more texts from friends and family far and wide.

“I saw Dickinson on the news. Are you okay? What can we do?”

The scenes I watched on TV and social media were shocking. But the weird thing was, I didn’t cry. All day, I held it together. Probably because I didn’t want to worry my daughters. And probably because I was numb to what was going on–I just kept saying that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Until one picture came across a text. My childhood friend had been out all day on his boat rescuing people in Dickinson and knew I would want to know how our elementary school, the school my two daughters currently attend, fared in the storm. That’s when I lost it.

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Once the tears started, it all came rushing forward. I cried for my girls who no longer have a school. I cried for my friends who no longer have a home. I cried for my former students who lost everything. I cried for my sister whose husband drove her suburban up on a trailer at 2am as the waters rose fast beneath his feet threatening to enter their home. I cried for my family who no longer has a church. I cried for my coworkers as I read their terrifying scenarios of rescues from rooftops. I cried at the thought of the stories I haven’t heard yet. I cried because I am stuck at home, flooding all around me, unable to get to those who need me–even if it is just to give a hug to say what my words can’t seem to express.

But behind the tears is an incredibly proud spirit that knows we will bounce back–as a community, as a state, as a nation. We will pick ourselves up and pick up those who can’t find the strength along the way.

It is very easy to let the guilt creep in as I think about why my house was spared in the flood. But I have chosen to focus on the answer instead of the question. I know why I was spared- so I can help.

I will help my students cope through reading and writing. I will listen to their stories and cry right alongside them, all the time reassuring them that we will get through this. I will teach them that through dark times, we must look for the light. I will be that light for them if they can’t seem to find it anywhere else.

I will help my friends clean up and start over. I will volunteer my time to tearing out soaked sheet rock and ripping up soggy carpet. I will offer my home to the ones who are now homeless. I will hug them and catch their tears on my shoulders as they try to pick up the pieces and move on.

I will help my daughters clean up their school and the teachers there (one of whom is my sister) replenish their classrooms. I will help the school rebuild and crawl out of the hole of destitution Harvey has created.

And through all of this, I pray that I will help the world see that there is hope for humanity. If you can’t see it, just come on down to my community and watch because it is in full force all around me.

Now move out of the way, Harvey, we have work to do.

 

Bio: Megan Thompson is the Department Head of English at Clear Creek High School. She teaches AP Literature and Composition and Pre-AP English I. When she isn’t teaching, she spends most of her time chasing around her daughters, Aubrey (5) and Maycee Jo (3), and spending time with her husband of 7 years. Follow Megan @teacher_mmt

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Finding Solace in our Students

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End of the year pics with friends and books.

The shooting in Orlando this weekend has weighed heavily on my mind for the past few days; it has settled into the back of my brain, penetrating my thoughts whenever I get a moment to rest between the hectic last days of school.  While I only know victims through six degrees of separation, I can’t help but see the images of friends, family, and students in the 49 faces of those murdered.

I’m not sure if it is the lockdown drills at school that make these tragedies feel all the more chilling and real, or if it’s the targeting of LGBTQ+ populations when I, oftentimes for the first time, watch young people finding their true identities in my classroom, but this time I feel nauseous and weak and powerless.

To think that this is the world my students are graduating into and growing up in, is frightening.

But as I scrolled through the profiles of the deceased, I found a statement from the father of victim Mercedez Flores.  He wrote, “We must all come together, we must all be at peace, we must all love each other, because this hatred cannot continue for the rest of our lives.”  That is what the workshop classroom allows me to share with my students—a corner of this peace and love.  It opens a door for me to connect with them on a personal level, allowing them to find not only acceptance but also stories, understanding, and success in their books.  Allowing them to open up to new literature and explore themselves as a reader sends the message that I not only value them as learners, but I value them as diverse people with a wide variety of needs, curiosities, and interests.  This avenue may only be minor, but in the wake of all the hatred and fear, I hope my classroom is a respite from the world.  A place where students can learn to at least respect one another’s differences without judgment or condescension, a place where we can explore the difficult themes and navigate challenging conversations in safety.

IMG_2693Everyday gives me a little more hope that this next generation has begun thinking about the innumerable struggles they will have to face.  As one of my students wrote about the universality of To Kill A Mockingbird, “For an innocent man to be found guilty is a miscarriage of justice, but for an innocent man to be found guilty for being black is a result of bigotry and prejudice, and shouldn’t happen…Sadly, as seen with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others, racism still does exist in this country. To Kill A Mockingbird is a constant reminder of how far we have come and how far left we still have to go when it comes to overcoming racism.”  Charlie’s words remind us that stories show us both the fallibility and overwhelming strength of the human condition.

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my last day of classes (we still have three more days of exams), I reminded myself that teaching allows me to model a life of acceptance and love, of caring and compassion, of concern and advocacy.  It may not be much in the general scheme of things, but it is the most productive way I can handle the tragedies our country continues to face.  Between cramming in grading and pulling together final assessments, I spent invaluable time writing notes to my classes, collecting ice cream toppings for our last day parties and signing the backs of photos of my students with the books they read this year.

The best part is that the love is returned as graduating seniors from years prior show

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Ice cream parties to finish up our yearlong adventure together.

up at my door to hug me good bye and have me sign their yearbooks.  College students visit to update me on their lives, current students voluntarily help me pack up my room, and former students spend their first summer afternoon organizing my bookshelves for future students.  For all the hate that exists in this world, there is far more kindness, far more compassion, and far more love.  I know because my students remind me of this every day.

 

The Best Gift You Can Give Your Students

A few weeks ago, when I sat down to confer with Asia, she told me that she bought me a Christmas gift. She was really excited about it. “I’ve never bought a teacher a gift before!”

She’s a senior in high school.

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My scarf from Asia

I asked her why she’d never bought a teacher a gift before. She thought for a moment. “No teacher ever gave me respect automatically, like I deserved it.”

It breaks my heart that in twelve years of public education, this girl never felt that a teacher respected and cared about her.

“How did you know I respected you?” I asked her. A few other kids sitting with us answered this question too.

“You talk to us every day, like we’re adults, about our learning, and you really care what we say.”

We confer.

“You do all our assignments with us so we know they’re not busywork.” This from Shailyn.

I write beside them.

“You always expect us to know more than we do, and you don’t take BS excuses about why our work isn’t done,” Jocelyn said.

I have high expectations.

“You know exactly what your students are capable of,” Jocelyn further explained.

I know them, well, through frequent talk about their choice reading and writing.

“You just seem to really like me, and see me,” Asia finished.

A few days later, she eagerly presented her gift to me, and waited eagerly for me to open it.  It’s a lovely seasonal scarf much like the ones I always wear–a very thoughtful gift that, when I thought about her reason behind giving it and combined that with my pregnancy hormones, made me completely bawl.  I love it, because Asia gave me much more than just this scarf–she gave me proof that my teaching is important, if only just to her.


Readers and writers workshop is about more than just nurturing literacy skills–it’s about nurturing people, their thinking and creativity and confidence.  Conferring isn’t always about teaching into a standard–it’s often about just talking with another person about what’s in your mind, helping to flesh it out through talk before writing.  Writing beside your students isn’t just valuable because it’s modeling–it’s essential to creating a true community of learners committed to growing as readers and writers and thinkers.

This holiday season, give your students the best gift possible–respect, love, value, and the equal footing that comes with shared learning and the collaborative creation of knowledge.

Why We Should Challenge Our Students–And Ourselves

I’ve recently found myself in a learning situation I’ve rarely experienced before–a classroom where I am the slowest, lowest, and neediest learner.  The one whose work is nowhere near the level of everyone else’s.  The one who asks the dumbest questions.  The one who is silent and stricken after asking the dumb question.

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My own messy attempt at a poetry exercise

Those of us who grow up to become English teachers are skilled readers and writers, for the most part, and we were generally successful in educational settings.  We loved reading, we enjoyed writing papers, we received positive feedback from our teachers about our work, and we got good grades.  This is eminently true of my own educational experience, so I’ve never been able to truly empathize with how my struggling students might feel about our class time together.

The work of learning is tough in general, but standing out as the worst learner is a pretty unsettling feeling, I’m finding out.

The poetry workshop I’m involved in, which has shattered my confidence as a writer (while simultaneously strengthening my writing skills) is taught by award-winning poet Mary Ann Samyn.  This Bolton Professor for Teaching and Mentoring is the leader of our little band of misfit poets, and has been “poem-ing it up” for decades.

Mary Ann’s resulting ease with the language of writing and teaching poetry is obvious to witness.  She has clearly internalized and automatized much of the vocabulary of poetry–she tosses out phrases about meter and iambs and syllables and line breaks with such grace that I can tell she’s been thinking and talking about poetry for years.  “A line of poetry is a unit of measure,” she said.  I hastened to write down that line, marveling at its simple wisdom.

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My classmate, an MFA student, scrawls her own messy poem

It occurred to me, as I jotted down that poetic utterance of Mary Ann’s, that this is how I must sound to some of my students–as though I’m speaking another language.

As I sit in the workshop on Thursdays, surrounded by MFA students who have years of experience as real writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as teacher-poets who have published their own verse, I feel so lost.  I am in a world I don’t feel I belong to–I do not yet identify as a poet, but I feel surrounded by them, trying to do the work of writing poetry and reading poetry and thinking about teaching poetry.  I wonder if I’ll ever get to their level as they gently question me about my writing, trying to make sense of my meaning, and give me suggestions about my work.

Regardless of how I view myself in the group, one thing is clear during the workshop–I am part of the community of poets, for 90 minutes every other Thursday.  I give and receive feedback in the same way the other writers do.  I participate in the exercises everyone else does.  I write poetry within the same time constraints as the others.  I am treated as a poet, even if I don’t think I am one.

Being part of a writing community with such rigor is hard, but it’s valuable.  I would never use the word “fun” to describe my time in the Bolton workshop, but I would argue that perhaps the best learning is not fun.  I find myself determined to write poetry alongside those real poets, even as I dread reading my words aloud to them moments later.  In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that my drive to do this is innate to all learners:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.”

I make an effort to improve as a poet because I need to feel competent, much like our students work to improve as readers and writers because they desire competence, too.  In all educational situations, learners perform not because of the dangling promise of a grade, the threat of failure, or the pressure to comply with a controlling teacher.  They perform because they want to prove competence to themselves.

I asked a few students about this topic.  This summer, Shailyn read the Pulitzer-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  She said the vocabulary was difficult, the book was long, and the writing style was strange–it was one of the toughest books she’s read.  “Why did you have the confidence you could read it?” I asked her.  “When you encountered those challenges, what made you say, ‘I don’t care.  I’m gonna read this anyway.’?”

“Because I have goals.  I like to feel challenged, and when I finally figured out how [the protagonists’] stories came together, I felt satisfied.  And I felt like I learned a lot from that book when I finished it,” she said.  Shailyn wanted to know that she was a competent reader–comprehending that book showed her she was.

Hunter, too, recently finished a book that challenged him.  “I hate this book,” he told me in the midst of Lone Survivor.  “You can abandon it,” I reminded him.  “No!” he said, forcefully.  “I’ve gotten two-thirds of the way through it.  I’m not giving up now.”  Hunter finished the book of his own accord, exercising his autonomy.

Lakynn agreed that learning is intrinsically motivated.  “You feel better about yourself when you’re more educated about a topic,” she told me.  “If you’re not knowledgeable about something, you can’t relate to someone more educated.  You want to learn about things so you can have those conversations with people about them,” she explained.  The social aspect of a learning community is evident and powerful here–Lakynn sought information about the Republican presidential candidates to fulfill her relatedness needs.

The more I talked with students, the more I discovered that what I thought was frustration with my difficult learning experience was actually profound satisfaction.  Yes, my confidence was crushed–I thought I was a good writer.  But knowing that I had so much room to grow created a hunger for more knowledge–I needed to learn, to belong, to feel competent again.  And so, I leave the Bolton workshop energized, confused, and with my mental wheels turning, every time.  The rigor of that learning–the toughness of it–is what makes it so satisfying.  I’ll remember that the next time I sit down beside the accomplished poets in my class, and every day I design lessons for my students.

Our students flourish when we create an authentic, rigorous learning community for them to be part of.  Difficult books, intimidating writing pieces, and high expectations combine to create an ideal situation in which autonomous learning can occur.  The beauty–and the learning–lie in the challenge.

I’ll leave you with a gem from one of Mary Ann Samyn’s collections of poetry, Beauty Breaks In:

Beauty breaks in everywhere.
Welcome to the wind-powered poem.
Like the ocean or the woodcut of the ocean.
I heard the hardest thing and listened.
Syntax says, you first. Shimmer half-scolds.
I said, I am loved. Sometimes a correction happens.
Fear made it one full week. A human action.
I stopped making it worse than it was.

Kids Want to Write! (and why my writers need yours)

photo(1)Two weeks before the end of summer break Kayla shared a three-page Google doc of writing exercises with me. Yesterday morning Kate showed up at my door at 7:15am, brimming with writing prompts and workshop plans. And yesterday afternoon my writing meeting with two students turned into an impromptu gathering of ten. The odd part is that these aren’t my students. In fact, I haven’t even met the vast majority of these students who show up at my door. But they keep arriving, and the reason is that kids want to write.

I know this because for the last two years, I have co-advised my school’s Writer’s Club, a community of students who set aside time each week to explore words, laugh over prompts, and share their writing.

When I inherited Writer’s Club last year, I didn’t think the concept was unique to many schools. A teacher established the club before I was even hired, but as I grew to know my members, I realized Writer’s Club served a larger purpose. Students ranging from freshmen to seniors and academics to honors showed up at my door with notebooks. Students who had been writing their entire lives arrived with laptops packed with stories. While many of these students had tried out newspaper club, yearbook, and literary magazines, they told me they had found their niche here among like-minded peers. Unlike other clubs that focus on publication, Writer’s Club focuses on the process.

This club provides a safe space free from the pressures of classmates, peer groups, and lesson plans. Even my best classes (and believe me I love my classes) don’t capture the pure acceptance and kindness these students have for one another. Just like with adult writer’s groups, these students rely on each other to explore their thoughts and work. Some students carve out time to work on a book they’ve been writing, others plug away at fan fiction, and the majority dabble in a wide variety of styles and genres. This club gives them their fix of creativity that can’t always be reached within the classroom.

This year we have a variety of activities lined up. We’re already planning to decorate writer’s notebooks and create a colorful display for the club fair. We’re creating lists of workshop dates so members can sign up and discuss one of their pieces with the group. We’ll have lunch with visiting writers and invite local authors to discuss their craft. As the foliage turns, we’re planning a field trip to downtown Exeter where we’ll take a walking tour then settle into the park with donuts, cider, and notebooks in tow. But above all, we will write and share to our heart’s content.

Yesterday afternoon one of my freshmen stumbled into my room to look at the homework board. She froze in the doorway, scanning the room of students who were brainstorming on the white board and sitting at tables painting and coloring club posters. Music was blasting and kids were engrossed in their individual projects, laughing with each other, and telling stories of their summer.

“What is this?” she asked me.

“It’s Writer’s Club! Want to join?” I said.

“Well I’m part of yearbook club. We meet at the same time,” she said.

From across the room a student yelled to her, “Cool sweatshirt! I like that” while another struck up a conversation about writing fan fiction on the student’s favorite TV show Supernatural.

“Do you want to stay?” I asked.

She smiled, looked around, and took off her backpack. “Yeah, I think I fit in here.”

What do you do to inspire writers outside the classroom? Do you have a Writer’s Club or a writing group for us to team up with? We’d love to Skype, e-mail, share, and chat with writers from across the country!

An Authentic Connection: Literacy and Citizenship

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Room 369: The New Home of the Francis Gittens Lending Library

It is finally time for educators across the state of New York to head back to school. Here in the city, we have one day to organize, get our rooms situated, be professionally developed, catch up on the summer on-goings of our colleagues, and be ready to open our doors and welcome our new students full with promise – tomorrow.

So, as I let this ruminate; I find myself referring back to an article I was sent this summer to keep my mind whirling and my thinking on the edge.  Why are students falling off track?  According to this piece from Education Week the gap that separates students from achieving academic success is staggering.  This is not news.

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A moment of calm amongst the disorganization…

However, as I have had to arduously undergo this move of 3,000 books and their accompanied bookshelves (the entire Francis Gittens Lending Library) from room 382 to room 369; much has come to light.  I’m no stranger to believing that literacy is the key to access, opportunity, and self-worth; or that the Readers Writers Workshop is the venue in which to do so. Yet, this experience — this move, has taught me even more.

Literacy needs to be passed on.  It cannot remain only within our classrooms or the classrooms down the hall.  It must be infiltrated into the homes in which our students live; brought with them on public transportation where book covers are viewed by others; shared with siblings.  It must continually be invited and welcomed into places it does not often find an invitation.  That’s our job as educators.

I’ve been reflecting on this past year, and years prior, to recollect what I believe to be some of the most vital components of the educating that occurs within the Readers Writers Workshop – and I always come back to the same two elements: creating a love and thirst for knowledge through literature and fostering the creation of students’ voices through writing.  This was solidified when Daphtho (pictured above) matter-of-factly stated, “Ms. Bogdany, you don’t have to thank me for helping with the move.  It’s my way of thanking you for helping me receive my diploma.”

So when Daphtho and George (two recent graduates) offered to spend their time among the heat, lifting and moving and organizing and undoing and reorganizing and waiting (for me to make aesthetic decisions); they quietly schooled me.

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A moment’s pause amidst the move…

Through their actions they showed me that when we are relentless in supporting their thinking and ideas, when we foster them as individuals (not just students) they innately become the young men and women they are destined to become. They are willing to give back to their community (even if they are no longer going to be physically present). They understand what it means to feel safe to take risks, comfortable to allow vulnerability to surface, and the power of giving back.  And, are eager to pass it forward.

During the many hours of this move, there were quiet (if not silent) moments of understanding.  Albeit the towering stacks of boxes that needed unpacking, these young men stopped in their tracks as they found literature that spoke to them – and found themselves comfortable spaces in which to explore. Daphtho will be bringing literature home for his brother entering sixth grade as he works side-by-side with him on his literacy skills (knowing the importance of a strong foundation) and George decided on two pieces that were donated by a friend of mine from high school – ponderings and questions about taking the next steps in our lives.

So no, my urgency for, “Time is ticking” did not kick in.  But what did kick in was, “This is exactly what this time needs to be.  Us. Books.  Connection.  They are ready for their next steps.  How grateful I am to have borne witness to their growth and how wildly fortunate I am to know them as the citizens they have become.”    

What elements of the Readers Writers Workshop do you believe propels your students in becoming robust citizens?

 

Syllaboom or Syllabust

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Giant conversational Jenga for a first day ice breaker.

The air of an empty classroom vibrates with excitement the days before the first bell rings. Polished floors gleam, new composition notebooks sit stacked evenly, crisp bulletin boards stand brightly against cinderblock walls. The energy feeds over into the freshmen who see my classroom for the first time. This is one of the things I love most about this job—the cyclical process of reinvention, the ability to start fresh and new for both us as teachers and them as students.

I do not start my class with reading the syllabus for this exact reason—syllabi, oftentimes stuffy and long, don’t nurture the charge of possibility. Too often they stifle it. No matter how many times I condense, rewrite, and inject personality into them, between the required plagiarism description and the cell phone policy, I am afraid I come off as a jail warden.

Because of this, I wait until the second day of school to review the syllabus and instead fill my first day with low stakes, community-building activities. Last year I felt pressure to kick off the year with a summative assessment to assess the baseline writing skills of my students. I felt pressure to keep up with my colleagues, so I’d bumped up my plans and jumped straight in the first week. Instead of spending time fostering exploration and growth, I focused on individual final products, forgetting the organic process of building up an environment that praised the formative process.

I focused less on establishing their writer’s notebooks and more on ensuring students had three polished pieces within the first quarter. Number-wise it felt like a success—I could back my curriculum and process with hard numbers; my assessments aligned with many of my colleagues, but my classroom atmosphere lacked the supportive community we had worked so hard to establish the year before.

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

This year I’m returning to my “old” ways—focusing on the need for consistent quickwrites, notebook work, and small group and whole class sharing to promote trusting relationships among my students. Based on Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, I’d rather give my students the time and space to make mistakes and struggle through their writing.  This year, our first day won’t involve immediately reviewing our new standards-based grading policy. It won’t require students to write their first paper by Friday. Instead, our first day will be full of giant conversational Jenga where students simply talk to one another. We’ll learn each other’s names in methods that DO NOT involve finding an adjective that rhymes with our first name. We’ll have workshop time to establish the individuality of our notebooks with collages of paint, pictures, tape, and stickers. We’ll share our favorite reads, listen to spoken word poetry like “What You Will Need in Class Today” by Matthew Foley, write, and speed date with books.

Instead of focusing on the rules, the assessments, the end, we’ll praise the process, the journey, the beginning.

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