Tomorrow is my first day of school with students for the upcoming school year. My own children are entering the 5th and 9th grades, and it feels like a big milestone year. One more year with a child in elementary school, and the beginning of high school for the other. It’s a big deal.
As much as I’m thinking about how quickly their childhoods are going by, I’m realizing that parents all over the world are feeling the same way about their own children. That I have two groups of ninth graders starting high school tomorrow, and their parents are feeling that same combination of whimsy and excitement and “how am I old enough to have a child in high school” and “when did my baby grow taller than me” that I am feeling. Or at least something similar.
I’m thinking about how I’m going to connect with these students, how I’m going to convince them that they can trust me with their writing and thinking this year, and most importantly, how they will learn to trust each other in a reading and writing community of their peers. How will I ensure that they find my class relevant? How will I ensure that they become people who like to read, and who look forward to writing? And the ones that already do? How will I challenge them, nurture them, and help them to become more independent?
Last year was my first year of teaching within the workshop model, and my classes were focused on reading. The students had separate writing classes last year, but now we are combining them. I’m looking forward to this change; it will be a new challenge for me, and I’ll get to know students in a way I didn’t last year.
The change also means I’m studying Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, taking lots of notes, watching the videos that come with the digital resources, and maybe I’m overthinking the first day or two of classes.
Better to overthink than under-plan, I suppose.
One of the things I’ve noticed is the vulnerability Kittle displays with her students. She writes about sharing her process, and not her final product. In her videos, she demonstrates asking students for advice about structure and craft in her own writing, and in doing so, models exactly the vulnerability and openness she wants her students to learn. Her students follow her lead, and they produce beautiful writing.
I’m going to be deliberate about following her lead.
I’m originally from Oregon, and for the fifteen years before I moved to Amman, I lived in the center of the state: in Prineville, a town of fewer than 10,000 people. Today happens to be the day of the total eclipse of the sun, and there are significantly more people than that in the area for this event.
Suffice it to say that I would love to be there to witness the spectacle of the crowds, to observe this once-in-a-lifetime event (I know there have been others, and there will be others, but right above my house?), and to generally feel the energy that comes with something like this. But I’m also glad to miss the crowds, not worry about running out of gas, and to avoid the traffic gridlock that has accompanied the scene.
Why does this matter? It matters because I will share my feelings and experience with my students. I’ll talk to them about the eclipse, which even across the planet they are certain to know about. But I won’t talk to them about the science or math or physics of it. I’ll talk to them about what it means to me. About how I hope my parents, who live in the middle of town, won’t go out and get caught in an hours-long traffic jam. About how I hope all of these visitors will respect the cleanliness and beauty that is in small-town-Central-Oregon. About how I am glad I am here for the first day of school, but in another lifetime, I’d be there in the center of the chaos.
I will be vulnerable.
I’ll share about what I read over the summer, and I’ll specifically book talk the YA novel I deliberately read about a solar eclipse: Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass. It’s a sweet story about three teenagers who are looking for their personal identities and might not even realize it. It’s relatable and relevant to the topic of the solar eclipse, and I’ve looked forward to sharing it with students since I finished reading it.
I also plan to talk to my students about the reader’s and writer’s notebook, and when I do that, I’ll use the question in chapter four of Write Beside Them which says, “What’s in a writer’s notebook?” and includes the following quote from Sylvia Plath:
I’ll ask students to respond to the quote on the chart, and to realize that they are full of experiences and ideas worth writing about. Worth reading about. Missed experiences might be just as valuable as the first-hand. That we all have self doubt, but together, we can find the guts to get past it and write.
I’ll ask them to contribute phrases from their own writing and brainstorming on the anchor chart so that we can refer to it and remember that we are all full of good ideas. We just need to be brave enough to try.
What’s different for me in this particular part of the class is that I’ll be writing and revising with them (beside them!), and I’ll write about the eclipse that I’m not witnessing, but that still somehow has an impact on me. I’ll try to link my writing to the idea that “everything in life is writable,” even including things that we don’t actually experience (like my eclipse!), because we are unique, have our own thoughts and feelings, and we matter.
I’ll write publicly, show my quick revisions, and deliberately model vulnerability.
I will try to validate their ideas through my vulnerability.
Hopefully this first class will set the tone for the rest of the year. We’ll do a quick practice of writing, revising, and sharing. We will ask each other for input, critiques, and help. We’ll celebrate each other’s victories and vulnerabilities, and we’ll learn to be better readers, writers, and thinkers.
Wish us luck!