Make certainty part of opening week

Getting students off to a good start in a writing class means helping them set realistic expectations for the course. A quotation I copied from Carol Graham’s book Happiness for All? tells one good reason why we need to tell our students what we expect of them and what they can expect of us:

While individuals seem to be able to adapt to unpleasant certainty…they are much less able to adapt to change and uncertainty, even that which is associated with progress.

Most of my students enter my writing classes dreading it. I rarely  (actually never) turn any of them into writing enthusiasts in the first session, but I do change their uncertainty about what the course will entail to certainty.

Just as Graham says, my students are able to adapt to “unpleasant certainty” reasonably well. And in doing that, they are able to make progress toward writing competently.

Start small

When teaching writing, it’s vital that you not bite off more than your students can chew.

In the first days of a school year, students are unsure of themselves and their surroundings.

Give them the security of writing tasks that connect to something concrete and familiar.

Assignments that ask students what they expect to learn and do in a class are useful: They give you the opportunity to correct misconceptions.

Responses to writing prompts that ask students to predict how this year’s English course will be like and/or unlike last year’s can also be enlightening.

Use student responses to help you set your course for the rest of the year.

I highly recommend using initial writing to establish students’ entering command of writing mechanics, so you can develop Individual Mastery Plans for your students. IMPs are the best way I’ve found to eliminate serious mechanical errors in student work.

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

Don’t break the ice: Melt the resistance

This month many teachers are thinking about how to get a new school year off to a good start. If you are one of them, instead of trying to find ice breakers for opening week, think about ways to involve students that will melt their resistance to your course.

In my writing classes, I use an activity I call I’m a writer.” I ask students to begin by putting their names in this sentence: “I’m ____ and I’m a writer.” I have them explain what they do that’s writing, which means defining what they think writing means, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I do this activity through informal writing, but you could use it with small groups as oral activities or through a combination of informal writing (to aid in gathering ideas) and oral presentation to small groups.

Teachers in other subjects with whom I’ve shared this idea have adopted it to other disciplines, with openers like these:

  • “I’m ___ and I’m a mathematician.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m a scientist.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m an historian.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m a visual artist.”

Introducing themselves as practitioners of the course content puts all the class members on the same playing field. Some may be better players than others at the start of the school year, but the wording of the activity forces students to identify themselves as individuals who are already participants in the discipline of the course.

Students may not believe they are writers, mathematicians, etc., but just saying they are makes writing or doing math a bit more palatable. If you can start the year without anyone saying flat out “I hate writing” or “I hate maths,” you’ve already won a victory.

[Updated 2/27/2014 to remove links to material no longer available.]