Ah, the first day of school. In the case of my school, and many high schools around the nation, there are actually 2 first days, since it takes two days of block classes to get through one entire cycle of classes. At our school, we've been back four days, two full rotations. Things have gone wonderfully so far! It's always exciting to get back to work and to meet new students. Still, I often struggle with what to do on the first day. No one wants to spend ninety minutes on the syllabus, but some things have to be covered right away. Additionally, you want to set the right tone for the year. You want your students to understand right away that you will all work hard, but that you will also do that work together, and that you will look out for one another. You want to set clear guidelines but simultaneously let them know that you are there to support them, and that you will never give up on them. The list of things that you need to accomplish in that first day can seem astronomically long, especially to new teachers who are told things like "don't smile until after Thanksgiving." Here are a few rules I always follow on the first day:
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
Overall, I'm always amazed at how much students have to offer and at how much they can teach one another. Many of the things that the freshmen read were bits of advice I would never think to tell them, nor would it be as powerful coming from me. I'm glad that they started off the year learning from their older peers, and I look forward to seeing the ways that they grow this year and what advice they have to share by the end of it. Best wishes to all of my fellow educators who are currently settling into a new school year. May this be the best one yet!
Our students come back on Tuesday! We've had meetings since last Tuesday, so at this point, the thought of having class, and of getting into the normal routine, seems exceedingly blissful. I intended to post about back to school/ first day activities today, but after staring at my screen for a while, I decided that is a post for the near future. Today, I'd like to reflect on young adult literature that I discovered during summer reading this year.
This is the list of what I read from YA Lit this summer:
I couldn't say that I didn't enjoy any of these. They were all excellent novels. In fact, I was beginning to worry that I would reduce my credibility on Goodreads with my recent high ratings. I've given pretty much everything I've read this summer four or five stars. However, I realized eventually that the seemingly inflated ratings come from the fact that all of those books were recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste.
That brings me around to recommendations. I've discovered in the past year that talking with kids about books is the number one way to get them to read. I read things and tell my students about them; the next thing I know, they are reading them for themselves. They make their own judgments--I particularly enjoy it when a student plows through a book that I loved and then tells me that s/he did or did not particularly like specific things about it.
My thoughts about the books from this summer:
Lauren Oliver is brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed discovering her writing this summer. Her narrators are complex and challenging, and she moves forward at a riveting speed that leaves the reader breathless. I think (despite my initial doubts during the first 100 or so pages) I ultimately liked Before I Fall better than the Delirium series, but both were amazing reads that have been enjoyed by my students as well as me.
Saenz is a phenomenal writer and his story poignantly and directly attacks the struggles that teenage boys encounter when they discover that they are a bit different from their peers. It's a story of loneliness, self-discovery, and compassion, and I loved every minute of it.
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a hilarious, insightful story with a brilliant narrative voice. It moves quickly and is a great read for teens navigating the complex pathways of social networks in high school, as well as those who are struggling with the illness of a friend or family member. It's honest and sheds an authentic light on the hilarity and absurdity of life as well as the complexities of the human experience.
I just finished Bitterblue, and I can't say enough about how much I love the world that Kristin Cashore created. She thoroughly engrosses her reader in the fantasy world of seven kingdoms (with another world accessible only through tunnels). What I particularly like about those books is the continuity of progressive thinking and strong female narrators throughout each of the novels. I also love the way that the novels complement one another while telling unique, fascinating stories. Though I loved all three novels, I found Bitterblue the most powerful as Cashore reveals through that novel the long lasting impact of a devastating tyrant and the challenges that people face in the aftermath of such a horrible experience.
John Green's novel was brilliant--funny, moving, and perfect for teen readers who are feeling alone and learning to relate to the world and their friends. This is an awesome story about the unlikely meeting of two very different teenage boys who discover that they have some things in common. It's an excellent book for teenagers who are dealing with relationship issues, loneliness, sexuality issues, or depression. It's simply a great novel for readers who are looking for a fun read about the struggles of "normal" teenage life.
Marie Lu's series is AWESOME! I love the alternating narrators and the way that their lives intertwine. The story itself is compelling, and Lu unveils her post-apocalyptic, dystopian world bit by bit in a way that keeps the story ever suspenseful and intriguing. They are excellent reads and are among the best of the genre that I've read so far.
I loved, loved, loved Hold Still. It was raw and honest about the devastation that people experience in the wake of suicide. However, what makes it remarkable is the way that LaCour shows with candor and authenticity how art and love and reflection can bring about healing and remembrance. It is a story of bravery and hope, and it addresses mental illness and self harm in a way that is approachable for teen readers as well as adults.
Finally, I will end with the book that began my summer. The Dog Stars is a phenomenal book. It took me quite a while to get into that one, but it was well worth the wait. It is a brilliant book that shows the desire to keep living in a post-apocalyptic world where virtually nothing is left. The narration is powerful with curt, broken syntax and sharp realities depicted in single word phrases. “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.” This is a remarkable story, and it would be a good one to teach in an advanced or AP class.
Well, this has turned out to be longer than I anticipated... I loved the novels I read this summer (almost as much as I loved the summer itself), and I can't wait to share them with the students this coming week. Best wishes to all of you fellow teachers as you settle in to a new year with your students.
As I made coffee this morning, I watched the Keurig flash "NOT READY" across its bright blue screen, and I thought me, either. I'm not quite ready to get back to it yet; I'm not quite ready for the summer to be over. Didn't it only just begin? I have one more glorious week of vacation left, and I intend to pack it full of fun. During that time, I will NOT berate myself for all of the things that I didn't accomplish this summer (if I say that, does it make it true?) and I WILL enjoy the time I have left (I kept trying to think of a less bleak way to say that--it's not as if the world is ending--but that pretty well sums up how it feels for most teachers as summer draws to a close). (NOTE: the wordle above comes from this wordpress blog post by Jeremy Butterfield, who has an excellent piece for National Grammar Day.)
Anyway, as I contemplate the coming school year, I'm considering what I will keep and what I will change. One thing that I will keep for the freshmen is the use of Everyday Edits. Provided by Education World, these grammar exercises are single paragraphs (2 copies per page, provided electronically and as a PDF) that contain 10 grammar mistakes. The mistakes generally address comma rules, capitalization, spelling, end punctuation, apostrophe usage, and occasionally run-on sentences.
The truth is that when I reflect on my units, grammar and vocabulary development are two areas in which I need work. I've read lots of research demonstrating that teaching either one in isolation is ineffective, which makes sense to me. However, incorporating them (especially grammatical concepts) in meaningful, authentic ways can be such a challenge that it results in doing nothing. Everyday Edits are not a fool-proof system and they certainly are not all-encompassing, but I find that they are a way to remind me (and the students) on a routine basis of the relevance and importance of understanding and utilizing good grammar. They also help students learn to become better editors, and help them learn how to look for grammatical and mechanical issues within their own writing. (Although I believe improving content is far more important in the revision process and that many students are too preoccupied with grammatical/mechanical errors, but that is a post for another day.)
This is the way that I use Everyday Edits in class:
I do use other bell ringers at the beginning of class (see poetry incorporation for another one that I use frequently), but this is one of my favorites because students love it (though I'm not entirely sure why) and they can do a large part of it prior to the beginning of class. It gives students who dread the time in between bells something constructive to do, while it doesn't penalize students who want to socialize until the bell rings. They can work at their own pace. I also like that it gives me a chance to quickly call on 10 different students for answers. We focus on making progress and we celebrate improvement. It can also transfer into the same kind of exercise with revising their own writing.
What do you do to incorporate grammar into your lessons? What kinds of activities do you do at the beginning of class? I hope this helps, and I'd love to know what kinds of activities you use.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.