Tag Archives: community

Talking about the First Day of School

I keep changing my mind. Students begin next Monday, and I cannot decide what we should do first.

In years past, I copied the syllabus and various other “need-to-knows,” and students sat with blank stares and asked a few meager questions as we read through them together.

“Let them know on day one how difficult AP English is,” a colleague advised me several years ago. “That’s what I do. I let them know what they are in for.”

Before I knew better, I thought that was a good idea. Be firm. Be serious. Let them know that an advanced English class would take a lot out of them. Leave ’em shaking in their Converse.

How dumb. Imagine attending a professional development session where the instructor put on this show. We’d laugh — or leave — wouldn’t we? (I would. My friends already know how difficult a time I have sitting still.)

Shouldn’t our first day of school be inviting?

Think about elementary school, how kind the teachers were, how much they wanted us to feel welcome and special, beginning on Day One. I remember Mrs. McBee (1st grade), Mrs. Nelson (2nd), Mrs. Smallwood (3rd), Miss Dallas (4th), Mrs. Holland (5th) — every one of them smiled and laughed and made me feel important on the first day of school. They set a precedent for every day to come.

I want to be that kind of warm.

One year I thought I had less chill. I prepared my room by piling high-interest books on each table, and after a brief introduction, I told students my plan to help them love reading. I explained my expectations for their reading lives. They chose a book and read for two minutes, chose another and read, chose another and read. They did this reading carousel for several rounds, and I asked them to choose their first independent reading book. They did. I thought Day One a success because 7/8 of students left with a book that day.

They also thought I was crazy. Distant. Cold. Unapproachable. They told me this much later.

I realized my mistake. If you look at that paragraph above, you’ll see it:  all those “I’s” and “they’s”. Everything my students did on the first day of school had to do with what I wanted for them. I did not invite them to think, to explore, to discover, to talk to me about how they learned, or how they need to be taught.

Shana refers to “the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives” in her post Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy.

I eat the language of control for breakfast, and rely on it for power all the way to dinner time. How dumb.

If I want my students to feel welcome, invited, inspired, to want to engage in the complex learning in our classroom, I must create the atmosphere and culture that welcomes, invites, inspires, and engages the moment they walk in the door. And I think it starts with conversation.

The first day of school — I think we are just going to talk. conversation bubbles various

We’ll probably read a poem, or two, and talk.

In the introduction to Dawn Potter’s new book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet, she reminds us of the value of talk:

“[Conversation] combines so many different kinds of reactions — wonder, worry, curiosity, opinion, delight, memory — and all work to expand confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement.”

Isn’t that the kind of community we want for our students this year — one that builds and sustains confidence, emotional connection, intellectual growth, and civil engagement?

I do.

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Takeaways: Boys & Literacy

arts-graphics-2008_1128618aAt the conclusion of our course with Tom Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, our class collaboratively created a list of implications from our learning.  Following a reading of Misreading Masculinity, a viewing of the documentary Raising Cain, and more, we used Google Docs to list the implications of our course for application in our classrooms.

Please add your own wisdom about boys and literacy in the comments!

  1. Provide choice: lots of options in topic, genre, etc. – Allow for different styles of storytelling
  2. Incorporate more visual literacy – Using mentor texts like Knucklehead, comics, etc.
  3. Encourage the writing of fiction as a fantasy outlet
  4. Acceptance of the content they bring/the choices
  5. Conversation: Ask about choices that seem uncomfortable – build trust
  6. Teachers: Recognize the difference between uncomfortable and threatening
  7. Respect that students can differentiate between fantasy and reality.
  8. Pay attention to the context of the violence in boys’ writing
  9. Encourage collaboration in writing and reading
  10. Make space for movement and conversation – too often, boys must sit and listen; reverse that
  11. Incorporate humor in the classroom and content/curriculum
  12. Grant students more autonomy in the classroom
  13. Use the note response method we used to have students respond to each other’s work
  14. Support social interactions between boys around literacy
  15. Question our own motives, preferences, and restrictions as we teach
  16. Create a place for non-fiction – demonstrate that non-fiction does not have to be boring
  17. Use technology as an alternative medium for both expression and sharing
  18. Learn the identities and passions of your students
  19. Recognize the importance of listening to students
  20. Realize that posturing is okay – it is “trying on a personality” in order to discover one’s own
  21. Provide positive role models of masculinity so male students don’t get caught in a bad one
  22. Encourage nurturing responsibilities in (ie, provide opportunities for) boys
  23. Have a wide diversity of types of male protagonists in available literature – celebrate the same strengths we applaud in female characters when we see them in male characters
  24. Be aware of the gender implications of language
  25. Open up the genre of analysis beyond literature, eg, new video game
  26. Allow and encourage drawing at all levels
  27. Expand your repertoire – having a team helps
  28. Encourage positive competition occasionally

There are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation


Emma was sunshine personified. She was salty hair and smiles and surfing. She was the student who sat in the front row, the one who showed up early to class just to chat. Emma died this past September in a car accident, one day after I revised her college essay, one day after she told me “one more concussion and I’ll be dead,” one day after she laughed off my nervous, “Be careful!”

When I first hear the news, I had been given the wrong students’ name, and I am ashamed to admit that for a moment I selfishly breathed a sigh of relief. But then her picture loaded, the pixelated image appeared line by line on my smartphone, her sandy blonde hair and smile, flashing section by section and I fell apart alone in my living room at 6:30am.

That was only the beginning.

Quickly students began unraveling. I am a second year teacher, a relative novice in the education world, yet I feel like I have lived a thousand lives. Had you asked me to reflect on my world after my first year, I would have peppered you with stories of passionate readers and personal successes, comedic performances of Macbeth, and classes that became family.

This year was different.

The questions weren’t the same, and while my first year had its own challenges, my second year was consumed with worst case scenarios. How was I supposed to deal with my seventeen-year-old students’ funeral? Where should I go when my student has an anxiety-induced nervous breakdown in the middle of class? How do I respond when my entire class just watched their classmate carried out in handcuffs? Or punched in the face in the middle of class? Or attacked by another student with psychiatric disorders and no impulse control? What do I do when my student disappears after being threatened with gang violence? Or because they attempted suicide? And these were only a handful of questions that I dealt with.

I have learned that there are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation. This was my year of transformation. No workshop or course could have prepared me to deal with the needs of my students this year. From them, I have learned unconditional commitment as a teacher. I have defended the rights of my students to remain in my classroom despite their disabilities. I have learned the value of opening my classroom as a safe space for those who have no place to go, whether that is at 7:00am or 4:30pm, to chat or just to read silently away from the prying eyes of peers. I have learned the value of openly modeling enthusiasm and empathy, of thanking them for filling my days with humor and love. I have learned the value of showing them that their words matter—that I will get their friend help immediately, that I will notice their change in disposition and book them an appointment with the school case worker, that I will sit with them in silence if that’s what they need.

I have a week-and-a-half left with my students, and while this year has saturated every ounce of my being, I will enter summer both as a stronger teacher and individual. As always, the end of our journey together is bittersweet, maybe even more so this year after the amount of time and personal energy I have invested into my students’ well being and success. This summer, I will delve into new novels and make lists of new lesson plans. I’ll attend multiple courses and collaborate on curriculum development, but I won’t forget that at the heart of my job is compassion. I can only hope that my students learn as much from me as I learn from them.

A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.


Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?

Sitting on the Hogwarts Express

“You must be a first year,” he asked the girl sitting across from me. Her brown bangs framed her eyesphoto 3-7 as she looked up at him, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother chuckled in the seat beside her. “And you two must be fourth or fifth years?” he continued, miming in the direction of my sister and I. I blushed at the thought of this man implying we were around 15 years old, the same age as my actual students. But I let him indulge.

“We are alumni, friends of Dumbledore.” And for a moment, I could see it—his hands perched on the head of his cane as he motioned towards his wife who sat wedged into the corner seat beside him. She nodded in affirmation, giggling at her husband’s show. I was on the train to Hogwarts at Universal Studios, a mecca for Harry Potter nerds like myself who never grew tired of the magic, the story, the wonder.

This was the first time that I truly gave into the commercialism of my favorite book. I had grown up alongside Harry; I was the same age as him when the series began and each new release marked my own maturation as well. Yet I was a selfish reader. I wanted the world between the book covers for myself. While some children indulged in sharing books with their friends, I loved the escapism of reading. Books made me feel special, unique, like somehow the author’s imagination was for me alone. I so desperately loved these worlds that I had come to indulge in that I refused to believe others could feel or even revel in the same universe I had come to know and appreciate.

As I entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I let go of the resentment and anger I had as a child—the feeling that somehow the world of magic had been poisoned. For the first time, the books my mind had lived in came alive around mphoto 1-11e. Throngs of readers surrounded me as I walked the streets of Diagon Alley, weaving my way through shops I had only dreamt of as a child. Flowing black robes enveloped children waving their wands and watching scenes awaken before their eyes as parents looked on sipping foamy pints of butterbeer. A stone dragon teetered atop Gringott’s bank, breathing fire towards patrons below.

Had I known when I was eleven that I would become an English teacher who presses students for their thoughts and opinions on what they’re reading, I would have to sought to share my relationship with books instead of internalizing it. Sitting on the Hogwarts Express that day with four generations of readers proved the unifying power of literature as I chatted with complete strangers from across the country about the intricacies of the series. We had each discovered these stories at different times in our lives and we had each read ourselves into the books, deriving different meanings from our separate readings.

I see this power every day in the turnover of my classroom library and the popularity of certain books. While the stories stay the same from year to year, my students do not. They ride the climaxes and lulls of common stories as groups, suggesting certain books to each other based on their own personal experiences. They laugh aloud in the middle of reading time and they cry quietly curled around their books in their bedrooms. They engage in the terror of The Maze Runner series then quietly lend the books to their friends only to excitedly discuss their individual experiences during down time. Books elicit reactions; they cause people to feel, and because of that, students pass on their suggestions to friends. The transformative power of common stories never ceases to amaze me—how such books can help define the path of one individual or bring together multiple. I spent years of my childhood believing that sharing my passion somehow devalued it, but I have learned that the uniqueness of reading lies in the fact that no two people ever read the same book. In the end, we can hold our individual experiences close, while still sharing the magic of common worlds.

Poetry at The Frost Place: Don’t Stop Believing

The Frost Conference on Poetry and Teaching is over. Those who didn’t leave yesterday left today after the Teachers as Writers workshops. The hugs good-bye were those of life-long friends, sad to part, but a little eager to get on the way. The small community grew so quickly. Sharing a love of language will do that to people.

I pull into the Kinsman Inn where I have shared a roof and a home-sized breakfast every day this week with, as Margaret said, “The kindest people I have ever met;” and the gravel lot is full with the cars of total strangers. I walk inside and even Sue the innkeeper says it is not the same. We feel it. The magic of the week is over.

I never cared for poetry. Looking back I know that attitude stems from the way I was taught. I never experienced the simplicity of words that I’ve experienced here. Even when I’ve taught poetry in class, especially those two years with my G/T students, I tortured them with bad teaching. I’m embarrassed to say I gave them a packet, and we read through the poems ‘analyzing’ as we went, never stopping to just listen. Listening is the secret I learned this week, but the secret was never meant to be locked a way so no English teacher could find it. It’s not even a secret really. Poetry is art; art has to be experienced. A packet doesn’t offer that to anyone. I’ll argue no matter the content, but that is an topic for another day.

Imagine this scenario:  Each morning you walk into the small Frost barn. You pull out your pen and wait

At the evening poetry readings at Frost's barn, the audience is invited to turn around and appreciate the view. Inspirational.

At the evening poetry readings at Frost’s barn, the audience is invited to turn around and appreciate the view. Inspirational.

for the morning’s dictation. Alyssa slowly reads a poem in her soft con-alto, stopping every so often to state a word that is capitalized or where to place a comma or period. You listen, and you write. You focus on the voice, the words, the phrases — the silence created by the pauses. You fill the page with this focused thinking.

After everyone arrives, you welcome the morning, and Teresa opens Robert Frost’s notebook and shares a significant line. “I don’t change my watch every time I see a watch it differs from.” We talk about living in the discipline — not in the product. Dave with a voice to rival God himself finally speaks out:  “We do not live in a culture that embraces silences.” We all nod.

We talk about poetry and teaching and teaching poetry. Then we share presentations filled with classroom practice or philosophy. Again we discuss — “civil engagement,” as Dawn coined it. Our notebooks filled with ideas we can use to give our students similar experiences.

The most impressive thing? We talk to each other like poets.

And that is what needs to happen in the classroom. So often we teach poetry and reading and writing when we should be teaching poets and readers and writers. Of everything I’ve absorbed this week, and this is saying a lot, I believe this simple thing will make the most change in mine, and anyone’s, classroom. 

Today several of us sat around in a circle and shared original poems that we’d composed yesterday. The only instruction for feedback:  What are the possibilities? No critiques. No corrections. Just suggestions on how the poet could play with words.

“If you do not play, you will never know,” Dawn reminds us. Isn’t that the best revision strategy ever? Just play with words, phrases, stanzas, rhythm, structure.

I want my students to play. I want them to have a tiny bit of the silence I’ve experienced this week. I will have them practice dictation — a sure way to quiet the mind and prepare for inspiration. I will continue to allow choice in reading and writing topics, and we will play.

Nicholas told me he never read a book on his own until college, but now he has an MFA and a knack for words. I can’t help but wonder if his gift might have come quicker — not the long sidetrack he took to get here — if in all his English classes he had been spoken to like the poet he is. That is worth a thought. Or two.

Today when I left The Frost Place for the last time, I turned the opposite direction on the road. I’d not gone this way all week. The lane was longer, but the view quite the same. But God must have been the one to turn the wheel because as I came to the T in the road, there stood the stop sign telling me “Don’t STOP believing.”

Don’t STOP believing. Can it be any clearer?

I won’t. I found the seat of my soul, and it is steeped in poetry.

Here’s my poem from the writing time today. I imitated the structure of Hayden Carruth’s poem “Twilight Comes.”

Twilight comes to the busy town

As season’s start. The tree tops

brown with leaves, which colored

And began falling during the heat,

Are moving again, and crack

under the wind’s breath. The buildings

from their place across the highway

crowd close again, as if for a

threatening glare, and with malice

An exposition as the sun slips

low. It is my fiftieth year. Horns

blare out one by one with a clashing

dullness, like the unfelt prayer

in church. I hear the dogs barking

pushing their noises into my peace —

I touch — and clearly — I am quite certain —

tightening muscles; perhaps hot iron

on the right side under my shoulder

or unusable rope on a sea-stuck ship.

It’s true. My man is on the phone,

there inside the living room. Clients

will close soon. I crack my paining neck

And bow my eyes to study the dead

root-bound pot on the patio

in the shadows. I sigh. Then

sigh again, just because it’s true.

I am going to be old. Too soon.

The Importance of Being Reflective (as well as Earnest)

ocsI’m going to be honest…I’m feeling pretty bummed as I sit here to write this post. I have had my first “wish-I-could-do-over” teaching days of the school year.  I haven’t felt this icky about a teaching day since…2005.  Oh Amy, you would have flipped out to see my utter lack of zen today.

It’s all too easy for me to focus on what I’ve not been doing well this year, how I have been falling oh-so-very short.  But I’m going to view this opportunity to reflect on my practice as a way to reset and to return to the core of my teaching soul for the coming week.

One bright spot in all of my classes this year has been a small change I’ve made in how I talk about books. One thing Penny Kittle emphasized this past summer (love to #UNHLit13) was the importance of book talks as part of her class every day.  I’ve always gushed about books I’m reading (see Shana’s post “Fangirling About Books”, which may as well have been my post! Kindred spirits!), and I’ve always prided myself on being able to match students with books that resonate with them.  But I decided to make book talks a regular part of each day, right after starting class with independent reading.

This Monday I’ll talk about books #51 (Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan) and #52 (Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan).  My students like finding the connection between the two books, though the connection between these is kind of obvious!

There are myriad benefits to having these daily book talks.  Some of the great books I read from and talk about are new to my students, and sometimes there are some who have read them already.  This has created community and conversation around books, as students share opinions, do their own spontaneous plugs for the books, ask questions, and start fighting about who gets to read them first!  Students started a Book Wait List on the white board.

It has surprised me how much the students enjoy the book talks.  One day a couple weeks ago, I forgot to book talk (it’s a verb now!), and Stephanie, who doesn’t ever say anything in class raised her hand and asked, “Are you not going to talk about a book today?”  When a new student joined our class, I had Noe help her get oriented, setting up her notebook and so forth.  I overheard her say, “After we read, she introduces a couple of books. It’s one of my favorite parts of class, no joke.  There’s a lot of cool books she shows us.”  The other day, students pointed out that I neglected to update the titles for book talks on the agenda.

All of the energy around books has helped create a culture of reading in our classroom so that even the most reluctant readers are giving books a try. The books have become a bridge between me and some of the students who are typically “hard to reach.”  It’s still a challenge to be sure, and there are days some students are fake reading, but for the most part, students are realizing the books are here to stay!

For me, it’s always easier to dwell on the negative, but when I stop to think about it, there are quite a few things going well. It’s a process, and I’m growing and figuring out how to make my class an authentic reading and writing workshop. It is a source of strength to know there are people in my PLN all over the country striving to do the same!

(Coming up next month: How to respond to the question, “How do you assess that?!”)

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