Back-to-School displays have been in stores for two weeks already, and with the calendar turning over to August, the countdown officially begins, since many students and teachers will be returning to the classroom this month.
When I taught at the secondary school level for 26 years, I always used those first few weeks of school to acquaint myself with my new students and to develop community. In that first month, we would engage in a series of writing activities. Teaching at the college-level, I continued to use many of the same activities, just scaling back the time spent.
These invitations to write would serve multiple additional purposes, allowing me to formatively assess the students I would be teaching and providing me with important intel. Because I believe in meeting students where they are, knowing something about their writing aptitudes and other literacies, while also learning something about who they are, enabled me throughout the year to address their needs, to honor their identities, and to pair them with reading and research materials that matched their interests.
On day one, amidst the acclimation events, we engaged in listing “ten things to know about me.” After disclosing my list as a model for the task and as a means of self-introduction, I invited my students to share information they’d like me to know. From these lists, teachers can learn passions, hobbies, anxieties, and other useful details that can aid them in planning curriculum. Later, these same lists can be recycled in the English/Language Arts classroom as a syntax mini-lesson to instruct writers about using variety in sentence beginnings to enhance fluency and rhythm
These lists, when shared in a Sharing Circle, build community as students get to know one another. During this sharing time, students will hopefully notice that communities all feature differences, differences that add to the uniqueness and beauty of a group. I always add that when we are all different, we can learn from one another, and with the insight gained we can respect each other.
Other writing activities that provide essential information about students and also develop community include Bio-Poems, I Am Poems, and imitations of the poem “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis (Third World Press, 2003). We would also write narrative poems prompted by the three children’s books Momma, Where Are You From? (Scholastic, 2000) by Marie Bradby, If you’re not from the prairie . . . (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995) by David Bouchard, and When I Was Young in the Mountains (Puffin Books, 1982) by Cynthia Rylant, as well as lists patterned after the one Arnold Spirit writes in Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, and Company, 2007). After reading all of the tribes to which Arnold belongs, students develop their own tribal affiliations or bands of belonging lists.
Models for many of these and directions to guide their construction can be found in the products available for sale on my website (www.thinkingzone.org).
As global connectedness becomes more and more a common reality, the need for cultural tolerance and global understanding are becoming increasingly important. This tolerance and understanding begin with time invested in activities that build community.