How I Start a School Year

There are so many ways to start a school year: list rules and procedures and consequences, talk about yourself, give them a worksheet, give a diagnostic test… I guess how you start a school year depends on your model of teaching.

The new model of teaching I see being promoted these days it this: List your standards, decide which ones are most likely to be tested (i.e. forget about narrative writing!), pick the text book units that covers the most standards, put those units on a map with most standards-rich texts and assignments. If you are starting your year with a pair of standards like “analyze for text structures” and “explain how figurative language creates mood in a text,” so be it. (Would those standards grab the attention of your ninth-grade self?)

Howard Gardener has said that “The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet we seem to be moving more and more to a teaching-by-committee model that sees teaching only through the lens of coverage. I see teaching through many lenses. One of my lenses is to see teaching through the lens of writing: my school year should do all the things a good piece of writing should do. It should grab your attention. It should raise interesting issues. It should push your thinking. It should lay a foundation and build on it. It should be a microcosm of everything that is to come. It should create a kind of conflict or tension that needs to be involved.

Starting the year by covering a standard does none of those things.

Here is how I started my school year with my 9th grade English students last week and into today. Not everything is standards-based, yet everything lays the foundation for the rest of the year, and everything we do in the first week happens for multiple reasons that benefit students.

Day One: While I take first day attendance, students write about the best class they ever took and the worst class they ever took. I ask them to focus on behaviors, not specific people, and not use any teachers’ names in a negative context. Students share their journal in small groups. We then list the traits of Bad Classes and Good Classes and discuss how we will be collaborating to create a good class. I detailed the process here at Middle Web.

The benefits of Day One: They are already engaging in writing, using evidence and details to describe their best and worst classes. They are thinking about what makes education good and bad, which is a set-up for our year-long inquiry into The Purpose of Education. We are discussing getting beyond rules and into what it really means to be part of a learning community, which sets up my non-rule-based approach to writing as well. Students practice quiet reflection, then small group discussion, then large group discussion – a pattern we practice the rest of the year. They are sharing their ideas and writing with each other from day one. We are setting a tone for the class.

On the remaining days of week one, students create maps of possible topics they could write about, another topic I’ve written about in both Writing Extraordinary Essays and at Middle Web. Students brainstorm their enthusiasm, frustrations, worries and wonders (things they worry about or that give them a sense of wonder). Students end up with hundreds of possible essay topics they can use to write about what they actually care about. We practice the write/small-group-share/large-group-discussion pattern. Students get to know each other better. I get to know my students better (I always get distinguished in “Knowledge of students”!) Students have topics to draw from for future writing exercises and writing workshops.

On Tuesday I also ask students to write an essay called My Education So Far. I give them no guidelines: “Just show me your best writing, however you’ve learned to write.” They write. The draft is due Friday. This assignment drives some students crazy since they like being told exactly what to do. It would probably give the Teacher Clarity folks a nervous breakdown.

On Wednesday, students do a small group activity called Why Read?/Why Write? They discuss real-life reasons to read and write and list them in their notebooks. They can list actual document-types they might need to read or write (resumes, contracts) or benefits of reading and writing (you can see from multiple points of view; writing helps you get your emotions out). We list students’ answers on a big piece of paper that we post on the wall for the rest of the year. Again, students are collaborating and discussing. We’re practicing large group discussion. We are laying a foundation for the rest of the year: you are not learning these things just to get a grade or pass a test – you are learning to read and write for life. We are laying the kind of foundation Simon Sinek recommends in his TED Talk and book: We are starting with Why?

On Thursday students get a chance to finish their drafts for their My Education So Far Essays. Several of them missed most of class Tuesday for Freshman orientation. Many of them want feedback before they are done. I tell them to finish first. I want to see where they are at. They are not being graded on this draft, except for completion. They are very concerned about grades and points and pleasing the teacher. I tell the class I want them to be more concerned with learning and developing their own sense of what good writing is.

On Friday, I teach them about annotation and have the practice it, not by annotating someone else’s writing, but by annotating their own. They must write notes in the margin or on Post-Its or (if it’s typed) in the comments function. These notes should explain 3 to 5 choices they made as writers. For many students, this is the first time they have been asked to think about their choices. School writing, they tell me, is all about following instructions and ticking off boxes on the rubric. As they begin to turn in their annotated drafts, which I will spend the next week reading just to give content feedback, I have them draw over-sized Post-It note represenations of themselves based on their maps: they can draw their enthusiasms and wonders and even their frustrations and worries. I’ll be making a quilt out of these Post-Its for Open House a few weeks down the line.

Getting them to annotate their own writing introduces them to the concept of annotation, and to the idea that writing is a series of choices you make, not a set of instructions you follow. It also sets them up to think about the choices they will make when they revise or rewrite the essay in a week and half after they have done some writing exercises and read a series of mentor texts! The Post-Its give me a further chance to get to know them and also starts to create a culture of putting work on display. Near the end of class, I tell them about the books I am reading (and hold them up so they could see them) and explain how I don’t just read because I like looking squiggly lines on paper. I read because I have a lot of enthusiasms I want to pursue, frustrations and worries I’d like to find solutions to, and a lot of things I wonder about. The maps, it turns out, are not just a key to writing, but to reading.

Today, Monday, they free-read their own books for the first five minutes of class, and then they wrote about what they know about writing, and what they’ve been they’ve been taught about writing, the good and the bad. Here’s the thing: many of them know they are being given bad advice. One student actually had a teacher tell her class that they should try to write like robots and avoid sounding human at all! (Newsflash: We have robots who can write like robots.) We discuss the fact that the five paragraph essay doesn’t exist nature, and the fact that there is no actual rule for how many sentences go into a paragraph. I then introduce them to the idea of Tools Over Rules, which I drew about in my comic strip, and which has appeared as a blog post at Moving Writers. I also give then a schema for thinking about those writer’s tools: Big Picture Tools and Closeup Tools. I’ll be writing about that sometime soon.

By the end of the first six days of school, my students have thought about what makes a good or bad class, started to create a class culture based on learning instead of rules, rehearsed small group and large group discussion, discussed the reasons for our work this year, brainstormed dozens of writing topics, discussed real life reasons that our class matters, begun a discussion of what makes something a good piece of writing, read for pleasure, and begun working on their first piece of writing for the year.

Did I cover any standards? I think so. But more importantly, I laid a foundation for all the learning that we’ll be doing together this year. And I’m starting to get to know them, and they are starting to know each other. And I haven’t even gotten to our big question yet: What is the purpose of education?

If the school year was a musical, this opening week was the overture and opening number. If the school year was novel, this opening week would be the prologue. If the school year was a symphony, this opening week would be the first movement.

A school year is a work of art, not a spreadsheet of standards to cover.