Set students’ sights on successful year

As signs in every store window remind you, it’s back to school time.

Educational psychologists tell us that if we want students to do well at some task, it’s helpful to get them to envision themselves succeeding at that task.

So, as you prepare for the new school year, use an opening week writing prompt to prepare your students to do well this year.

In his 1982 novel Space, novelist James A. Michener makes this observation:

People make themselves capable.

Turn those four words into a short,  formal writing prompt in which your students must describe how they plan in your class to make themselves capable of doing one particular academic task in the 2019-2020 school year. The task could be anything from no longer confusing its with it’s, or mastering MLA citation style, learning how to respond to essay test questions, or mastering touch typing.

Without too much effort, you can make the writing prompt work as both an attitude adjustment and an assessment of your students’ writing level, including identifying some of their habitual, serious errors.

Put a note on your calendar to have students write an assessment during the last month of the school year of how well they succeeded.

Here are a few bits of Michener’s biography that you might want to share with your students.

Michener was raised by foster parents. He didn’t know who his biological parents were. Even his birthdate is a guess.

After high school, Michener won a scholarship to Swathmore College where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and history and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. Then he went on to study art in Scotland, London and Italy.

During the Great Depression, Michener was an English teacher.

He volunteered for the U.S. Navy in 1942. After the World War II, he turned his navy experiences into Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became a successful musical.

Michener went on to write more than 40 other books, notable for their meticulous research.

During his lifetime, Michener’s books sold more than 75 million copies. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His money helped establish the The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown PA. He was active in politics and published a book in 1969 about the electoral college system, which was reprinted in 2016.

Related: My best teaching idea: Starting each course by introducing myself as a writer and having each of my students introduce themselves as writers. Naturally, we do it all in writing.

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.