By Shana Karnes
It’s back to school time! I’m so excited!
I love it. I can’t help it. Every year, I am just overflowing with optimism, excitement, ideas, and a huge cart full of school supplies. I’m usually armed with paint for my classroom, wall decals, new Expo markers, and of course, a truck full of books. Even this year, when I don’t get a classroom of my own to decorate and overflow, I showed up in my friends’ classrooms to help them paint, sort, organize, and plan.
The beginning of every school year is fun for me because it is so full of hope. Hope that this year, this time, will be the one where it all comes together for me, where I feel like a great teacher, where every single student comes to fall in love with reading and writing, where everything is perfect.
Of course, reality and my teacher dreams are two totally different things, but August affords me hope for the possibility that those dreams can come true.
As for my students, I know that despite all of their eye-rolling, stand-offish, sarcastic banter, they are just kids who want to be happy and purposeful and successful. They all have hope every August, too, no matter how goofy they might act. I know this from reading their notebooks, writing conferences, and mid-September lunch conversations, in which I hear how they hope this English class is different, this school year is better, this fall isn’t full of drama and stress and failure.
So, why would I dash all of that hope, on the part of every learner in my classroom, by setting any tone other than one of optimism on the first days of school? Why would we ever want to start a year the same old, same old way, with stacks of syllabi, xerox copies of interest inventories, the distribution of dusty textbooks, and a traditional teacher-centered dynamic in which I say what we’re going to be doing and the students all sit back and listen?
It took me a few years to realize the disconnect between my summer idealism and the traditional structure of my first few days of class. No high school student is ever anxious to receive their syllabus, textbook, or homework--so I don’t really need to deal with that on the first day.
When I began to wonder what kind of tone I was setting by sticking with the traditional first day activities, those activities went out the window. Instead, I tried to consider what might set the tone for a year of student-centered, inquiry-based reading, writing, talking, and thinking.
Instead of passing out textbooks, we explored my classroom library. I had stacks of books sitting on desks around the room and we practiced “speed dating” with them. We shared which books we’d already read, would like to read, or had heard were good or bad.
Instead of an ice-breaking get to know you activity that I’d likely forget after a week, we set up writer’s notebooks, explored funny writings and writing prompts from former years’ students, or wrote funny tweets about our summers on the whiteboard.
Instead of passing out the syllabus, we talked about our learning goals in partners and small groups. I shared my own learning goals for myself as a model, then asked students to consider very specific goals in terms of their growth in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We had wonderful conversations about which kinds of reading and writing interested us, which helped guide my planning.
Instead of emphasizing the rules and expectations I had for students, I listened to what they were saying and jotted ideas in my writer’s notebook pertaining to what would keep them engaged. Hot topics in the news or media could be mentor texts. Interesting new social media apps could be writing products. The best new movie was likely based on a book I could talk up.
This year, at the college level, I’ll consider what tone I’m setting with our first day’s activities. We’re going to do some yoga before we read a little from Pose, Wobble, Flow. We’ll personalize our writer’s notebooks and start the year by noting how our passions center us, and how those passions can inspire our teaching. We’ll craft parts of our syllabus together on Google Docs, negotiating deadlines, feedback protocols, and reading options.
In these activities, we’ll practice reading, writing, talking, listening, and thinking creatively, critically, and individualistically--which is exactly the tone I want to set for this year, a year that is full of promise and hope and wonder that it really will be the best year ever.
What will you be doing with students on your first day of school? WVCTE wants to know! Please tell us by commenting on this post, sharing on our Facebook page, or letting us know on Twitter!
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or find more of her writing about secondary readers-writers workshop at Three Teachers Talk.