In the rural part of Vermont where I grew up, seventh grade was a big year for kids. It was the year that we left the tiny elementary school we had always known to join kids from four other towns at the “big” high school, grades 7-12, thirty minutes away (which somehow translated into an hour long bus ride). Not only was the bus ride longer, but the building seemed a hundred times bigger, and the kids from the other towns seemed a thousand times cooler and smarter.
It was scary, and thrilling…and scary. In the weeks leading up to the first day of school I had nightmares involving getting lost in never-ending mazes of hallways, and of being picked last for teams in enormous PE classes. In one dream, I was perpetually locked out of things–classrooms, my locker, even books that wouldn’t open. I know I had these dreams because I wrote about them — even then I kept a notebook.
Thankfully, none of the nightmares came true (well, except getting picked last–that’s another story), but seventh grade did turn out to be a year for me that was largely defined by feeling alone. I felt completely lost that year.
The silver lining of that dreadful first year of junior high was that I think it eventually made me a much more sensitive teacher, all these years later. Getting to know kids and connect with them is something I strive for.
One of the benefits of writing workshop is that getting to know kids is practically built-in. If you launch your year with personal narrative, then you have the opportunity to read and talk with kids about stories from their own lives. Their writing folders and notebooks will be overflowing with memories, experiences, and moments that tell the story of who they are.
But sometimes it takes a little extra research to get to know kids in order to inspire them. How do you get kids to pour their little hearts out onto the page, if they feel like you barely know them at the start of the year?
Here are a few ideas to help you form fast connections with your students, to get to know them as writers, and as people:
KID & FAMILY INTERVIEWS AND QUESTIONNAIRES
It’s incredible how much you can learn about a kid from just listening. A few open-ended invitations to talk, such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me more about _____” can get a conversation started. At the start of the year, your writing “conferences” might be simple conversations about kids interests and experiences, before you dive into “One thing I want to teach you is ______.”
Some kids aren’t big talkers, and some are still learning English, so a questionnaire might work well, or an invitation to draw something if written responses aren’t going to work. If you teach a self-contained class a phone call or home visit to each family to ask about their child’s interests and experiences will help you form stronger relationships that will last the rest of the year.
LAST YEAR’S WRITING
On the first morning of my first day of my first year of teaching, the front office sent a stack of folders to my classroom, which I shared with more experienced coteacher. The folders contained work samples and scoresheets from the kindergarten teachers. I had arrived at school early that morning, and excited, I dove right into them, admiring their scribbled artwork, and taking note of the range of abilities that even a newbie like me could identify.
“Oh, don’t look at those,” my coteacher groaned as she entered the classroom. “I don’t like to peg kids. I want to get to know the kids myself.”
My face flushed. “Oh…” I said, and tucked the folders into a filing cabinet drawer.
I wish I had known then to say something different. Now I know that last year’s work samples are a gold mine when it comes to planning those first few weeks of school. If I could I would get my hands on those folders over the summer. I’d look for a piece of writing, or a drawing or two that I could put in each child’s writing folder so that on Day 1 they could open up to their best work from last year, reminding them of all that they had learned so that they might pick up right where they left off. In fact, in many schools where I now work as a coach and consultant, teachers pass up kids’ folders, notebooks, and book baggies to next year’s teacher for that very purpose.
If I could go back in time, I would have told my first-year-teacher self to study the work from last year and create a little chart, a class list, so that at a glance I could have seen which students had similar strengths as writers and drawers, and who had similar goals, and who I definitely would want to get to know better right away.
I also would have started up a fresh new folder, a yearlong portfolio to look at and reflect on throughout the year and pass up to the following year’s teacher.
In any case, I certainly wouldn’t have locked their work away in a cabinet.
LOOSEN UP YOUR ON-DEMANDS
Years ago, when I was a full time staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project we began to realize that students’ published pieces sometimes were not indicative of what they could actually accomplish independently. We realized that when kids were asked to write a piece all by themselves (i.e. on demand) there was sometimes a disconnect between what they wrote on demand, and what they wrote when they had the benefit of minilessons, conferences, reminders, and writing partners to help them.
Observing kids at work, and studying their independent writing before teaching a unit gave us incredibly helpful information. What did kids already know? What part of the unit was going to be especially challenging? What could we skip? Spend more time on? What kind of topics were kids interested in and choosing to write about? Which kids would probably make great writing partners? The information gleaned from a simple independent writing piece – one with no adult coaching or intervention – was so helpful that we began to develop a set of consistent protocols for on-demand assessments, what is now common practice in many writing workshop classrooms.
However, over time, in some classrooms, on-demand assessments have become another form of high-stakes testing. Instead of being used as a simple observational tool, it has become yet another way of sorting and labeling students. I’ve witnessed students becoming anxious, preparing ahead of time for the assessment as though it were a test. I’ve heard about teachers “prepping” for on-demands with stacks of graphic organizers and questionnaires.
If the goal of an independent writing assessment is to get to know students, then the actual assessment should feel just like a normal day of writing workshop. Kids should feel comfortable and confident. They should have access to all the usual tools and materials, paper choices and notebooks. The one difference being that you are there only to observe.
Loosening up a little during on-demands will serve your children well. You’ll get a much more accurate picture of how they write, what they choose to write about, as well as their habits and processes as writers.
Fortunately, I no longer have back-to-school nightmares of getting lost in hallways, or being locked out of classrooms. Instead, those are replaced by dreams of stacks and stacks of writing notebooks to read — and that is a wonderful thing.