Start a writing class with a writing start.

Name tag - Hello my name is Linda and I'm a writerThe start of a new school year is just a flip of a calendar page away for many teachers whose duties include or consist of teaching writing. For many years, I was one such teacher.

One thing I learned over those years was to make sure students understood on the first day of class what they were expected to do in the class. Unfortunately, it took decades of trying various approaches before I found a find a way to accomplish that objective on opening day.

The method I use I discovered when teaching asynchronous online classes for University of Phoenix. The University’s teachers were encouraged to have student use a chat room to get acquainted. When I promoted use of the chat room, students spent almost a quarter of the class chatting about their out-of-school interests before I could get them focused on learning to write.

So, I decided to start off the class by introducing myself in the online classroom as a writer. I told students they could get acquainted in the chat room, but I required students to introduce themselves as writers in the classroom space. That adjustment reclaimed nearly two weeks of class and enabled me to get most students writing at the end of eight weeks at a level that students in face-to-face classes typically took a 15-week semester to achieve.

To learn more about how I used the “I’m a writer” assignment to get students off to a good start, see this post from seven years ago.

© 2021 Linda Aragoni

Purposeful Opening Day Introductions

Opening day is a time for introductions. You introduce yourself, the subject matter, the texts, your expectations.

Often we forget that students also have personalities, information, and expectations that can either support or sabotage our teaching plans.

Name tag - Hello my name is Linda and I'm a writer

Hello, I’m a writer

Here’s a trick I use in online writing classes. I say something like this: We are all writers. Some of us like to write, some hate it. Some write well, some write poorly.

I’d like each of you to write a note to the class that begins, “Hello, I’m [put your name here] and I’m a writer.
Then tell us:

  • What kinds of things you write.
  • Whether you think you are a good writer or a poor writer.
  • Whether you like writing.
  • What you mean when you use the word writing.
  • What you would like to learn in this course to help you be a better writer.

Demonstrate

I usually begin by posting my own introduction, which shows the format and makes clear that most of the writing I do is work, not fun. Knowing their instructor thinks writing is work helps struggling students feel more comfortable in the class.

As students respond to the assignment, a few students (almost always girls) say they love to write, write fiction and poetry, and think writing means sharing their honest feelings. The rest don’t like writing much or at all, do it poorly or just OK, and say writing is about communicating ideas. Most of this second group report having problems with “grammer and spelling.”

Interact

For this activity to be useful, you must interact with students, using the information they provide as a springboard to help them adjust their expectations in line with what you expect.

If possible, put a significant portion of your interaction in writing to suggest that writing for readers sets up a conversation.

Adapting this idea

If your opening day is full of bureaucratic stuff, you could have students write informally in response to the first bullet item and share a few of them orally. You could have students finish up the assignment for the next day’s class.

A blog would make a super publication medium for the introductions since it encourages interaction.  Other publication options are bulletin board postings or a “class directory” perhaps with digital photos added. If you have students prepare portfolios, their “I’m a writer” could be their first item.

You could have young students do the sections of the activity as informal writing activities, initially sharing their writing orally, then compiling the series of informal responses into written introductions.

The “I’m a writer” opener can be adapted to various grade levels and to subjects other than writing (I’m a scientist, I’m a historian, etc.).

This article originally appeared in the August 2009, Writing Points © 2009 Linda Aragoni