Tag Archives: conversation

Writing Conferences: Stories, Schemes, and Strategies

Conferring is hard brain work. When do I listen? How do I listen? When do I talk? How much? How do I anticipate what a student needs? When do I step back and let them problem solve? Am I even conferring right? (Maybe not. So put your Judge-y McJudgers pants away while you read this.). As Shana explained in this post back in January, there’s so much value in talk, in engaging our students in conversation, in encouraging them–as Amy framed here— to tell the story of how their writing is going.

Because (as Tom Newkirk suggests) we have minds made for stories, over the years I’ve begun to recognize some common schemes while conferring. Recognizing these patterns frees me to listen and to respond. Perhaps you’ll recognize the stories of your own students in the stories I share. Perhaps you’ll pick up a strategy or two. 

The What-Did-I-Do-to-Myself Conference

This conference may typically begin from a position of fear–mine because my student’s eyes have suddenly become two daggers, piercing my helpful, loving heart. This occurred in a recent conference, where my student who chose ice cream as her multi genre research project topic hurled at me these words: “I don’t know how I’m supposed to write an argument about ice cream.” Was she complaining about lack of direction? Instruction? I took a deep breath to let go of any defensiveness I felt. Then I reflected on her question. Oh. Oh! The fear was not mine to have.

My student needed:

  1. to hear that to write about this is, indeed, possible.
  2. to understand the possibilities for executing the writing.

Conference next steps:

  1. I confirmed the correctness of my reflection by paraphrasing (So, what I think you’re saying is that you’re feeling pretty uncertain if you can, and if you can, what it looks like?).
  2. Once confirmed, I chose another seemingly tiny and narrow topic like tacos and verbally processed some options for how I could craft an argument for an audience on tacos. I did not do any written modeling or reach for any mentors at this point. My role in this early phase conference was to dispel fear, to affirm possibility, and to confirm faith in my student’s ability.

Student next steps:

Following this verbal modeling, my student disarmed with affirmation and a smile, she continued working in her notebook, mapping her argument and the rest of the multi genre.

The I-Need-to-Change-My-Topic Conference

This conference may typically begin from a declarative statement: “Just so you know, I’m changing my topic.” I’m being put on notice here.  But I delight in these William Carlos Williams “this is just to say” moments almost as much as ripe-n-ready plums. So, curious now, I say, “Tell me about why you abandoned the old topic” (I’m always thinking we can learn something from discarding topics) and “Tell me about the new topic.” That’s when my student in this case explains that the topic is music but that’s all he has. Hmm.

My student needed:

  1. To narrow his topic by sinking his teeth into the best tidbits of it.
  2. To get moving. And fast. IMG_2711.JPG

Conference next steps:

  1. With the topic so broad, I asked the student to tell me a story that shows his relationship with music.
  2. Once the student shared his story–one that involved him writing his own music and performing several songs at a local concert venue (Our students do amazing things!)–we mapped out a plan for the different parts of his multi genre text.

Student next steps:

With a story in his head (and probably a song) and a general plan mapped out, this student left for the day, ready to focus on more specific planning.

The So-Can-I? Conference

This conference may typically begin and end within a very short burst of time; a meteor shower during the Perseids, this conference starts with a short burst of light from the student, a recognition of how to apply a resource. In a recent case, the student examined a resource on possible argument structures I shared with the class, and ingenuity bursting forth, queried, “So, I can use the pro/con structure? And, can I make this modification to it?”

My student needed:

  1. To know that he has more freedom than he’s using.
  2. To have the affirmation necessary to keep burning bright.

Conference next steps:

  1. I replied,” Tell me a little more about that” and followed that with paraphrasing, “So, what you want to do is . . .?”
  2. Then I simply said, “Yes.” 

Student next steps:

Following this all-of-sixty-seconds-conference, the student returned to mapping out writing, synthesizing his own ideas with the resource. And, I spent five minutes with the next person instead of three.

The I-Know-I-Need-to ______ , But . . . Conference

This conference may typically begin with candor from the student. Like the first sip of lemonade on a hot summer’s day, it’s so refreshing to hear in response to my opening questions (How’s the writing going? What roadblocks are you running into?), “I know I need to _______, but I’m having a little trouble.” Ah. This can become an opportunity to model for the student or offer a micro-lesson; sometimes–like in a recent conference where my student wanted to build a more humorous tone–I help the student find or use mentors. **Note to self–I should probably start asking my students to tell me about mentor texts they’ve turned to when they’re tackling challenges. 

My student needed:

  1. To resolve gaps in skill level (impressively, one’s the student recognized).
  2. To access additional resources  for strategies.

Conference next steps:

  1. For this student working on narrative writing, I pulled David Sedaris’ “Let It Snow” and a couple of others.
  2. Then we talked through typical strategies a writer uses to develop humor.

Student next steps:  

Time well-spent, smiling now, my student worked on reading and studying the mentors.

 
The I’m-Avoiding-Letting-You-Read-My-Writing Conference. May also sometimes appear as the I-Don’t Have-Any-Writing-to-Show-You-Yet Conference

This conference may typically begin, well, haltingly–like a first time driver slowly circling around the empty high school parking lot. I’ll ask, “How is the writing going? What roadblocks are you hitting?” “Doin’ fine. No roadblocks.” Okay. Next approach. “Why don’t we look at a section together? Show me a section you feel really good about. Let’s celebrate what’s working!” Sometimes that gets us turned in the right direction (a smile and an oh, sure and we’re underway); sometimes we skid (uh, so, um, I don’t really have much yet. Uh-oh.). When I most recently tried this approach, my student offered, “Well, I really like this paragraph; but I’m not sure about how to develop it more.” 

My student needed:

  1. to feel safe enough–safe enough to embrace the opportunity or safe enough to admit to lack of progress.
  2. to have re-direction for what conferring might look and sound like. Sometimes they just don’t have the mechanisms down.

Conference next steps:

  1. In the first situation, I generally point out the parts that are really working in the section the student chose to share. I thank them. Then I ask if there’s anything else they want to share or questions they have. And, sometimes I get to look at more writing. I did in this particular case. And, had I not pressed gently, I don’t think I would have (I was kind of impressed that it actually worked!).
  2. In the second situation, I paraphrase what they might be feeling. I might say, “I imagine you might be feeling ___________ (stressed for not having more done; frustrated by how to begin; confused about the direction of your writing; etc.). They typically correct me if I’m wrong and we work together to plan next steps, even if it’s breaking down the process further.

Student next steps:

In the first situation, the student began applying feedback; in situation two, the student typically articulates what’s getting in the way and what resources are needed and then begins tackling a small goal (drafting a paragraph versus drafting the whole thing).

When I’m conferring, I’m listening, paraphrasing, questioning, re-teaching, modeling, affirming, finding resources, building possibility, and showing my students that what they write matters. No wonder my brain hurts.

Kristin Jeschke remembers with fondness the many teachers that encouraged her writing but especially Greg Leitner who always listened more than talked. And who always inspired her to keep writing. Now as an AP Language and Composition teacher and senior English teacher, Kristin appreciates the gift of moments spent conferring. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.  

 

 

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Accountability Through Conversation

In Shana’s post “Conversation is our Most Powerful Teaching Tool” she mentions an article by researcher John Goodland. He states that only 1% of instructional time is given to conversation…insert wide eyed emoji…what?!

That statistic has really stuck with me. I’m not sure if it was more than a subconscious thought until the power of conversation became very clear to me.

In a nutshell, I am a content coordinator who works to support (6th-12th grade ELAR) teachers as they hone their craft. Since I began working in this position, I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly teachers need to be and feel successful.

As a district team, we have agreed to implement independent choice reading into our daily routine, as a step toward implementing a workshop model. Teachers are on board and have done some AMAZING things with choice reading in their classrooms, but, regardless of what grade level I am with, or what campus I am on I keep hearing the same question, “how do we know that they’re reading?” We talked about logs, reading responses, summaries, notes, and we’ve shared resources and ideas, but there was still something missing…

Then I had it! A light bulb moment in its truest sense. In classrooms where students TALK about what they are reading, they are accountable. In Amy’s post about shifting control she talks about “find[ing] a space for conversations…” and that if her giving “up control makes space for that, I’ll take it every chance I get.”

lightbulb

For me, that answers the how do we know question. During some learning walks I saw three examples of conversation from three different rooms…

First example: In a 12th grade academic/on level classroom the students began their class period reading for 10 minutes in a book of their choice. Once the timer went off, the students were asked to talk to a partner (or two) about their book. The teacher specifically asked the students to “sell it”. Sell their book to their partner(s). The teacher roamed around the room while the students were talking and then let two volunteer share their “pitch” to the whole group. It was very clear that the teacher knew what their students were reading, IF they were reading, and how the felt about their books.

Second example: In a 7th grade PreAP class students began their class period by reading for 5 minutes, then when the timer went off they got a 1 minute break. Students were asked to talk to their elbow partner during their break about their book’s protagonist. The teacher provided a sentence stem to probe the conversation. Then after the minute was up, they read for 5 more minutes. The teacher roamed and jotted notes as a “status of the class” during that 11 minutes. The students have been talking about the structure and elements of fiction and how protagonists can shape a story. At the end of the minute, the teacher had a pretty good idea about what her students knew and didn’t know about protagonists, including how to pronounce, or mispronounce, the word. 😛

Third example: In an 11th grade AP class the students began their class period by reading for 15 minutes. While they were reading the teacher met with every student in the class. Her questions were simple; she asked, “what’s the title of your book?” and “what page are you on?” The teacher was able to meet with 26 students in 15 minutes. She was able to see who is meeting their reading goal, who is abandoning books, and who isn’t reading.

When students know they’re going to be held accountable to explain their book, connect it to what they’re learning through mini-lessons, or just track their progress to their teacher, they respond. It becomes the culture…

This isn’t anything new, and it’s been talked about before in multiple posts on Three Teachers Talk, but what was a game changer for me was seeing it in action. I was able to create a concrete model that I could then replicate. I learned three different strategies or approaches to talking with students/letting them talk to each other by watching someone else in action. Talk about self-embedded professional learning! I mean, can it get any better than that?!

When I visit campuses my first question to teachers is going to be: how are you getting students to talk? Then we shall see where our conversations lead us. 🙂

I’d love to hear from you! How do you get and promote your students to talk? Are you able to visit other teachers classrooms on your team/campus? If so, do you feel like it’s beneficial?

Conferring with Students Proves Difficult to Implement, Even for the Most Determined

My professional goal this year centered on conferring with students about their reading and writing on a more regular basis and keeping track of those conversations in order to track progress, pose questions, and offer valuable feedback. Based on a tip offered by Kelly Gallagher at the NTCTELA conference (2017), I created a notebook with a 2-page spread for each student in order to record notes from these conversations.

RWNotebookOn the left-hand side, I pasted in a notebook card that students filled out on the first day of class with information about their favorite genre(s) of books, their favorite book, their least favorite book, one writing strength, and an aspect of their writing which they wanted to improve. Below this card, I kept a record of reading conferences with the student. Here, I not only kept a list of what books students read, but I also jotted down notes during our conversations about the text.

The best method I have found for finding out how much my students actually read, understand, or like specific texts is to talk to them about their reading and ask thought-provoking follow-up questions. By recording notes about these conversations, I am better able to tailor instruction for all students – based on common observations or questions – and recommend books for future reading that I think they’ll enjoy and that will match the level of rigor they require.

On the right-hand side of the notebook, I recorded essay scores as well as some feedback about what students need to work on in their writing such as: use of passive voice, crafting a strong thesis statement, and providing evidence to support assertions. This allows me to track student progress toward improvement of writing skills. For instance, I love it when I can record additional comments such as “she successfully wrote in the literary present tense this time” or “his poetry shows insight and creativity.”

Conference and feedback notes also allow me to see when a student fails to make progress. How many times do teachers write the same feedback on successive essays, and where is the student’s incentive to change that practice unless they are one of the rare few who are intrinsically motivated? When we speak one-on-one with students and note the recurrence of these habits, they are more likely to address them.

So – I had a plan. I implemented that plan. But things did not exactly go according to plan.

I encountered several difficulties that prevented me – and more importantly, my students – from reaping all the benefits that our discussions and resulting data collection could offer. Below, I have listed some of the problems I encountered, their causes, and the potential solutions I plan to try this semester:

ConferringChart

Though these difficulties left me feeling extremely frustrated at times, I do still deeply believe in conferring with students. Our students need, desire, and deserve the individual attention and feedback that reading and writing conversations provide.

Please comment with suggestions about how you have successfully conferred with students and tracked important ideas from that discourse. Let’s help each other find new ways to build relationships with as students as they build confidence in their writing and a real love of reading that extends beyond our classrooms.

 

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
AmEOnceimage

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?

 

Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

 

 

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

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.

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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