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!
"High school is a scary concept, especially when you are an eighth grader walking into it. To be honest, high school isn't all that scary once you get going. My ninth grade year has been my best year so far. All of the teachers are so helpful and caring. They listen to what you have to say and also give great advice when it's needed." ~current 9th grade student
For their final writing assignment this year, my English 9 students wrote letters of advice to the incoming freshman class. We studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explore the use of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasion, and then my students applied those techniques in their letters as they passed along the wisdom they’d gained over the course of the year. Tomorrow, we’ll post the best letters on the bulletin board, and we’ll place all of them in a binder for the incoming class. The students will have an opportunity to look over the letters and to make signs and posters demonstrating the best pieces of advice.
I first came up with this idea after reading Karen Finneyfrock’s novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. In that amazing story, young Celia finds her way in the world as she navigates the challenges of her freshman year. See my previous post for more information about that novel and the kinds of students who might best benefit from reading it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this assignment, but what I noticed right away is that many students who often take a long time getting started with writing assignments jumped into this one immediately. They outlined their ideas, came up with clear thesis statements, and spoke directly to their audience. They admitted their own mistakes and expressed their regrets about some of the choices that they had made.
I've read about half of the letters, and here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read so far:
“You should be able to be who you are and not what others expect of you. Become the new cool. Even when everyone else judges you. “
“Before you start to make fun of someone, just think how much it will hurt them. Would you like to be that person?”
“[The teachers] just ask that you respect them and all of the other students. Your teachers don’t want to sit through a whole year and argue with you. They want you to be successful and respectful. Treating my teachers right really got me a long ways. Sometimes you may not agree with their decisions, but you have to give them the respect that they deserve.”
“Don’t listen to drama because everything you hear might not be true. It helps if you keep just a small group of friends who you can trust. Participating and listening to drama doesn’t show good things about your character and can hurt others as well as yourself.”
I’d like to note that most of the students who gave the best advice were not students getting straight As and behaving appropriately at all times. The ones whose letters were the most authentic and compassionate were the students who had struggled in earnest this year and who knew from hard-earned experience the things that would help them achieve success. The students also had to mark the different kinds of persuasion that they used (we selected different fonts for each kind), so we had a lot of good discussions about what logos, pathos, and ethos are and how to incorporate them into our writing.
Another great benefit of this assignment is that almost all of the students mastered the concept of using a concession and a counterargument. While I’ve tried various ways to help them understand and apply this concept, most of them have been unsuccessful in their previous applications. However, this time, they thoroughly understood why the students might not listen to them, and they knew what the younger students’ objections might be. They addressed those directly and highlighted why the other students should see things from their perspective. Some of the students included this kind of logical reasoning for each of their main points, which really strengthened their argument.
Students said things like:
“You may be shy and think that you don’t want any more friends, but trust me if you’re in a club or a sport, you are bound to make a new friend or two.”
“At this point in your life, I’m sure you aren’t worried about your grades, but they are more important now than ever before.”
“I understand that sometimes you are afraid to stand up because you are shy or simply because you are indeed a freshman but participation can help you in so many ways.”
"You can’t erase the past from everyone’s minds but you can have a fresh start to make more of yourself when you get to high school."
Overall, the students had brilliant points to make to their future underclassmen. They advised them about things like homework and grades, but they also talked to them about participating in sports and clubs, about bullying and making friends, about respect and standing up for beliefs. I should get back to them, so that they can see my feedback tomorrow!
It is with hope and encouragement that we wrap up this year and prepare for the next one.
P.S. I took off last week to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, but it mostly caused me to feel a bit lost and lazy, so I will do my best to keep up each Sunday over the summer :). Coming next week: a post about the phenomenal Infernal Devices series!
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
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 2019. 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.