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!
This week, for the first time ever, I have the privilege of hosting a guest blogger. This post comes from Jen Moyers, a phenomenal teacher (and, even more importantly, an awesome person) I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with here in Virginia. This has been Jen's twelfth year teaching, and during this past school year, she taught Dual-Enrollment to seniors, Honors English 11, and English 11. She is innovative and creative in everything that she does, and she constantly tries new approaches and new technology. She inspires her colleagues as well as her students, and it is an honor to share her ideas about student blogging here on this site.
Here's Jen Moyers' Post:
Ironically, I suppose, this is my first blog post. Well, sort of. It’s my first “public” blog post that’s going on a for-real, accessible-to-everyone blog.
I have posted before, though, on a private blog that I maintain for my English 12 Dual Enrollment class. I have used this blog for the past five years to great effect with my DE seniors, for whom the blog becomes the repository for some of their best writing. I think it’s because I let them write in any way about any thing.
Normally, you see, I’m a bit of a control freak. I try to plan every moment of every class, every outcome of every assignment. With blogs, I finally started to let go . . . and it really worked. (I kind of hate exclamation points, or I’d use one here.)
Now, those student blogs have become something I look forward to reading, the way I truly get to know my students, the way that they develop their voices, the way they build confidence as writers. Often, I find myself teary-eyed, awed at the beauty with which a boy describes his first broken heart or the vulnerability with which a girl confesses her fears about graduating and leaving her friends. Oh, I suppose these topics sound hackneyed, clichéd, but for these kids, they’re reality . . . and they’re beautiful.
Even with blogs, I struggle with the details, with the control: Do I require them to post weekly? Do I give them a word count? Do I ask them to blog about something we’re discussing in class? Should they be public or password-protected? The more I use blogs, though, the more I realize that it’s the freedom of blogs that makes them empowering. Given the choice, most students will post throughout the grading period (there’s always a procrastinator or two, but—as I found out this year—even a weekly posting requirement won’t change that). I’ve found there’s something to be said for not worrying about the word count and just letting them express themselves. And, while I’m certainly open to their continuing a class discussion online, requiring them to do so doesn’t result in inspiration but in frustration (for them and for me).
So, my new school year’s resolution is this: Yes, we’re going to blog (and I’m expanding to all of my classes). Yes, the blogs will be public. Beyond that? Well, I’m going to hand over control to the students. That, after all, is what has made the blogging experience so successful thus far, so I’m trusting that it will only become better with increased ownership on their part.
* * * * *
This year, I taught 16 supremely talented students with vastly different voices, lives, and interests. I was running behind on my grading (as I have all year. Ah, the life of an English teacher), so I was reading their blogs during exam week while scrambling to come up with an idea for their end-of-year gift. Each year, I give my DE students something to commemorate our year together, to celebrate their graduation. Some years, I’ve made a movie using footage or photographs of our class; one year, for a class of seven, I made a photo album for each student with excerpts from their favorite writing for the year and with a word cloud of each of their names composed of a list of adjectives submitted by their classmates.
Anyway, this year, I had 16 students (so I couldn’t have expensive gifts) and not much time (so a film was out of the question—plus, I didn’t have footage or photos). As I read their blogs, stressing all the while about how best to say goodbye, I was blown away. They were gorgeous. I laughed, I cried, I beamed with pride. And I thought. About poetry, of all things. (And I’m definitely NOT a poet.) But their blogs—which were unique, completely disparate efforts—somehow seemed to be circling the same topics, the same accounts of their year, the same thoughts of looking back, and forward, of yearning to leave and yet recognizing what they were leaving.
So. I went through their blogs (some of them again—inspiration hit after I’d read through three or four students’ blogs). And I copied and pasted all of my favorite lines into a Word document. I ended up with six pages—about 160 separate “best lines”—of gorgeously written prose and poetry. I printed them out, sliced them up, and then started organizing, literally laying out the lines on my desk.
Disaster nearly struck with an unexpected cough (luckily, only a few lines sailed across my desk), but I finally had used MOST of the lines from students’ blogs. I typed them into yet another document, and then continued shifting, moving this idea here, that line there, until finally I had something that made sense, to me at least. I had labeled all of the lines with the students’ initials because I wanted part of their gift to be the way that they had come together unconsciously to form this (semi-)cohesive meditation on their senior years. I also wanted, however, the final poem to look “poemy,” so I re-saved, inserted some additional line breaks. And VOILA! (That exclamation point is warranted, I think.) I had a seven-page found poem written by all sixteen of my wonderful, lovely DE students.
I recorded an introduction so I could explain my process, then recorded myself reading the poem (‘cause the kids like to hear my voice—they love getting audio feedback on their essays a la Jim Burke). I then sent them (via Schoology, a site I highly recommend) the Word document versions of the final poem, the draft of the poem with the kids’ initials, and my two recordings. They loved it. It made them cry, which made me cry, which made me realize all over again how much I’ll miss them.
Anyway, this blog post is reaching epic proportions, and I haven’t even included the poem! (Sorry, Ashley.) All of this comes back to the main point: I use blogs with my classes. And I love it.
P.S. (from Ashley) Jen and I agreed to feature the poem on the writing portion of this site, and we also decided to include the audio of her reading the poem below. The text of the poem can be found here. I hope that it is inspirational for you; I know that it was for me. On the writing portion, there's another post about student blogs and Comments 4 Kids, an awesome site (and hashtag on twitter) that helps your students get more readers and comments. Jen also shared her assignment sheet with the rubric that she used this year (though, excellent teacher as she is, she plans to revise for next year). Enjoy!
"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!
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.